Mentors: Key to Success for Social Innovators

Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Entrepreneurship

Recently, I continued my conversation with Beth Parkhill, founder of Mentor Planet, a social enterprise dedicated to spurring innovation and impact mentoring relationships.

This time we discussed: “Essential ways mentors help social innovators succeed.” Beth prefers the term “social innovators” because it encompasses more innovative ideas than “social entrepreneur.”

Here’s a continuation of our conversation:

Paul: What do social innovators need to succeed?

Beth: That’s not a simple answer. Both large and small organizations need to understand what they can do themselves and what they should have others do.  It’s rare that you can do anything alone, so expertise in collaboration, partnerships, and influencing others is key.

In larger organizations, a social innovator needs to shake things up, bypass “doing business as usual.”  Large organizations often shut down good ideas:  “We’ve tried it before.” “It can’t work here.” “We don’t have time to do one more thing.”  An experienced mentor gives real-world examples of ways they dealt with similar challenges, suggest ways to manage expectations, kick the tires on an “internal sales pitch” and keep nay-sayers at bay until there’s some real momentum.

In small organizations, often there is an enthusiastic champion who “sees the vision.”  Unfortunately they don’t always have the know-how grow or scale the organization.  Social entrepreneurs have a bit harder time of it. Part of the reason is because it is a hybrid between the nonprofit and for-profit world.  It requires understanding both cultures and both opportunities.  A sales culture is often foreign to the nonprofit world.

Every social innovator needs to be given many opportunities to explore, to create new ideas and see what works. Then adapt and try idea after idea, until they come up with a successful model. This often takes several years, and significant bumps in the road!  Many organizations don’t have the stomach for innovation.  Many say they do, but when failure is whispered, they often pull the plug before the idea is given a fair chance.

Paul: What’s the state of start-ups?

Beth:  Social enterprise seems to be “in the water”; it’s clearly a growing global trend.  With funding in every category tightening, more people are considering it, even if they shouldn’t. Many people don’t understand what it is, or what it entails.  They are overly optimistic about what it takes to start a “business” or generate revenue.  Fortunately, many social innovators are increasingly frustrated with achieving only small, incremental improvements.  They believe social enterprise is essential for scaling change, making real impact.  Avoiding the nonprofit mindset, they choose the for-profit route because they believe, in part, they will have more funding options.  Its exciting to see what crowd-funding is making possible these days.

At the same time, social innovation is growing too, with “start-ups” of a different sort, including cross sector collaborations.  More innovations are possible through major partnerships between nonprofits and for-profits, which go well beyond “cause marketing” and event sponsorships.

Paul: How long does it take for a new initiative or start up to take hold?

Beth: One general rule is 3-years. Most ideas morph over time. An initial business plan, regardless of how much solid research and analysis was done, will likely change many times over the course of 3 years.  You learn and adapt based on what works or what doesn’t.  That’s when mentoring really pays off.  Naturally there will be mistakes.  If you’re not making mistakes then you’re probably not trying anything new or making any major improvements.

It’s my belief that we live in a culture that is highly critical and has overly high expectations, which is the perfect chemistry to kill new ideas and start-ups.  That’s why a mentor’s experience with failure and overcoming critics is invaluable. Being a leader or change-agent is daunting and self-doubt is normal, even among the most seasoned social innovators.  You’re charting new territory for you — your organization.  Mentors provide both reality checks and real-world insights into navigating relationships with clients, funders, and other stakeholders.

I recently attended a meeting in which an organization described their journey toward a new product launch. They spent 10 years and millions of dollars to prove their model.  They were exceptionally fortunate to have had an internal champion to support their initiative over years of uncertainty.  Most social innovators and social entrepreneurs won’t be lucky enough to have that many years or consistent funding to prove the worthiness of their idea.  That’s why they need even more supportive mentors to foster experimentation and risk taking.  How else are we going to tackle some of our most pressing social problems?  Mentors make it possible to transfer knowledge and accelerate learning.

Paul: What’s the role of the mentor in helping social innovators?

Beth: While it’s often thought that mentors teach a specific skill, which they do, what’s really essential is caring feedback — authentic positives and thoughtful critiques.  Being critical is easy; being thoughtful in the timing and type of criticism requires maturity.

Equally important is the mentor’s ability to ask the right questions and get you thinking in new ways. Mentors can see new possibilities you might have overlooked — in yourself or your project.  A mentor can’t know all the answers.  And last year’s expertise can be obsolete today.  So a good mentor spends considerably more time actively listening rather than giving advice.  By sharing their experience and insights instead of advice, the old school model of hierarchy-based mentoring is eliminated, and places the drive and initiative with the social innovator.

Paul: What do you think are some of the key challenges for successful social entrepreneurs?

Beth: It’s surprising; but keeping the needs of the customer foremost is often overlooked. Many social enterprises lack a sales culture.  The mission mindset is what made them successful; but things have changed with today’s competitive economy.    Successful social entrepreneurs know that keeping customer needs and the social mission both need to be the #1 priority.  Really successful social enterprises also value highly their employees.

Knowing your competition is another obvious one.  It is tough to be honest about shortcomings in your own product or service.  Surprisingly many for-profit companies fail at that!  Social enterprises have two types of competition, too: the “enterprise” competitors and the “donor/funder” competitors.  If you’re smart, you’ll be constantly benchmarking both types of competitors and continually raising the bar and innovating.  And if you’re smarter still, you’ll find ways to partner with your competitors where it makes sense.  All too often, organizations try to do everything rather than exit something and focus on what they do best.

Paul: What’s a good strategy for a mentor to use, when mentoring a social innovator?

Beth: What’s most important is to build trust so that the real issues surface.  We all hate to admit what we don’t know; and it’s more troubling to some people to be vulnerable.  We’re hired because of our expertise, so it’s uncomfortable to ask for support.

Of course, each person is unique.  Not only do they need different skills, they don’t all learn the same way. Some people will know exactly what they need. Others are so overwhelmed in their demanding job they’ll need a mentor to sort through the challenges and set a game plan.

The best mentors start by building on the social innovator’s strengths.  They ask questions: “What’s the best possible future for you?” “What fostered your passion for this?”  “What drives you to be your best?” “How can I be most helpful to your success?”  And a mentor is there, supporting the social innovator month after month, challenge after challenge!  Yes, tech-support is great.  Having an advisor to call when there’s a crisis is great, too.  But having a mentor who cares about you and commits to being engaged in your success for 12 months or more, well, that’s when achieving major milestones are possible.

Paul: Any final pieces of advice for mentors of social innovators?

Beth: Ideas are fragile. A lot of new enterprises don’t make it. They don’t get the support that is necessary to really make them work. They don’t do due diligence to fully consider the pros and cons of a new idea.  All too often, they fall in love with an idea — or fail to consider discontinuing something they have always done (even when someone else is better at it.)

Others don’t consider what’s really possible, because it requires them to go outside of their comfort zone.  That isn’t bad.  Organizations shouldn’t jump into something they aren’t ready to commit to doing.  What they could do is ensure their social innovators had a mentor or perhaps two or three mentors, so that new ideas and innovations were given a fair chance. Imagine what a difference it would make if every social innovator received the support of a smart, caring mentor.  Imagine the number of new ideas that could be launched — and how it would breathe life into so many organizations to spur more innovation.

Beth Parkhill can be contacted at

Mentor Planet’s website is:

Paul Hardt can be contacted at

His website is:


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