Social enterprise, southern fried

John Bare is Vice President for Programs at The Arthur M. Blank Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia, and a journalist by training. Since joining the Foundation’s team in 2004, John has invested in transformative changemaker-led initiatives and, with these partners, helped to create a healthier and more innovative Georgia.

In the American South, my home, culture requires changemakers to develop a particular set of skills.

We can’t rely on the venture capital of San Francisco, San Jose or Boston. We usually can’t rely on state and local governments to drive change, as evidenced by the map of jurisdictions banning plastic shopping bags, to use one example.

Instead, smart Southerners have always figured out ways to make their targets believe that the new ideas were theirs all along. It’s how Tom Sawyer got his pals to whitewash the fence for him. It’s how, by accident, the legendary Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich was born. First prepared as a punishingly hot meal by a wife seeking revenge against her unfaithful spouse, the husband ultimately loved the dish and opened a restaurant to sell more. Such is the path of Southern entrepreneurs, backed not by government fiat nor turbocharged by VC but blossoming when users sink their teeth into an innovation and can’t resist making it their own.

In notable ways, the South has resisted innovation. This is the land of nullification and interposition, where occupying armies were needed to integrate the campus in Oxford and Central High School in Little Rock. Even in more polite times, Southerners remain expert at quashing innovation with a forced smile and withheld enthusiasm. It’s no surprise then that the South was absent on one recent list of early-stage VC businesses.

When the default setting is status quo, social entrepreneurs run into unexpected barriers. Several years ago, when there was momentum across the country with public schools adopting salad bars to increase healthy options for students, I offered a grant to Atlanta Public Schools to put salad bars in every school. I received a polite decline. When the foundation where I work then offered to fund a limited number of salad bars at schools across the state, one administrator declined our offer out of fear, she said, that al Qaeda would poison the salad bars.

The passage of time has allowed school officials here to grow more comfortable with young people having direct contact with lettuce. At their own pace, area schools finally found their spot on the adoption curve and brought salad into their buildings.

Diffusion of Innovations, Lingering and Lagging

One way or the other, entrepreneurial ventures eventually turn on the innovation-adoption decision. Able to imagine how tomorrow can be better than today and creative enough to craft pathways to get there, social entrepreneurs bring to life product and process innovations that can accelerate change.

In some cases, the innovation-adoption decision lies with a centralized authority — such as when New York’s Mayor Bloomberg sought to ban oversized sodas. In these instances, no one is willing to bank on individuals adopting the desired practice. The centralized authority wants to make the innovation-adoption decision for everyone.

In the South, the default is to give control to the people — or when government cannot be avoided, to the smallest unit of government. No Southern capitol would dare interfere with a grocery store’s choice of bag. Nor would any mayor butt into a soda drinker’s selection of a quart or half-gallon size receptacle.

To figure out a diffusion model that works in the South, the classic take from Everett Rogers is helpful. He points to five attributes of the innovation itself that help determine whether a potential adopter will pick up the idea, or reject. Across all the variables, Rogers recognizes that any potential adopter is continually comparing the new offering to what he or she has in hand. You could say that a tie goes to the status quo. So the innovation has to be lots better, lots easier and lots simpler than whatever it is we’re currently using.

In the South, this requires a subtle but critical shift. In encouraging my neighbor to adopt an innovation, it’s essential that she have a chance to try out the novelty. This is what Rogers calls trialability. Even better if she can observe her pals having success with the innovation before she jumps in.

Adoption, Rogers explains, is positively associated with “the degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis.”

This also requires innovators to focus on what we are asking people to start doing — not focusing on what we are wishing they would stop doing. I may want you to stop sitting on the sofa for hours at a time. What I’m selling is a no-strings-attached trial run at a dance class, and you will be my guest. It’s easier to promote the adoption of a positive behavior than to order cease-and-desist on a negative one.

Further, peer influence is more important in the South than expert or authoritative sources. Putting peers to work and employing Rogers’s lessons, Georgia Organics, a nonprofit organization, launched a social venture a few years ago to attract newcomers to 12 farmers markets around the state. Three years later, the program had exceeded its goal, with the campaign having attracted more than 20,000 first-time visitors to markets. More than 6 in 10 of the first-timers chose to continue shopping at farmers markets at least once a month.

It’s notable that the change model did not include any of the following: a government requirement; a celebrity spokesperson; a request to stop eating junk food; a request to stop doing anything at all; a requirement to pledge to shop weekly at a farmers market. By designating existing shoppers as “ambassadors” for the markets, the strategy gave status to civilian shoppers (not expert chefs or nutritionists). The ambassadors were asked to invite a friend to come to the market. First-timers were welcomed with discount coupons and gift bag. They stuck around because the social experience scratched an itch to support farmers and improve their own health.

Nudge, Not Nag

Whereas foundations have great experience nagging the populace to do right, a growing body of knowledge from behavioral economics — summed up as “nudge” — is giving the social sector new ways to induce the desired behaviors.

The White House has even organized a “nudge brigade,” understanding that there’s a payoff to creating the conditions in which individuals will, on their own, make the choice we wish they would make.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, one of the nation’s great children’s hospitals, has been employing nudge techniques developed by Cornell researchers to help school cafeteria managers remake the lunchroom experience across Georgia. Research shows the nudge innovations draw more students into choosing healthy options, on their own, without the lunch lady nagging.

The effort is too new to show results on student health outcomes. What we do see is strong evidence of cafeteria staff opting in to the training and self-reporting on the ways they want to apply the lessons in their own schools. Children’s, which has a nudge expert on staff, hoped to train 300 cafeteria staff. More than 600 signed up and participated in the training, and the requests keep coming.

Again, the success in stimulating the innovation-adoption decision did not include a government mandate, celebrity sizzle or prescription for implementation. And the approach did not ask cafeteria staff to stop doing anything. The approach took hold because it offered professionals a chance to gather with their peers, learn about methods that may hold a relative advantage over their current practice, and then decide for themselves when and how to put into use.

Call it social enterprise with a Southern flavor. The best practitioners seek first to understand the potential adopters’ needs and their social and professional networks. Then they tap into the influence of peers to promote authentic trial-and-error experiments with usage. When individuals get a chance to test drive an innovation, they will determine whether it fits with their values and holds a relative advantage over the status quo. When Southern changemakers hit on an idea that clears these hurdles, they can turn to nudge methods to accelerate adoption. By the time government comes around, it will be accommodating preferences — whether for salad bars, farmers markets or hot chicken — not proscribing them.