Saturday, January 12, 2013

SPARKS – Final Week

Since my last spark was related to connecting to an old student, I thought about another student of mine that I had. When I was a teacher he said to me, “When I get older, I want to work for you some day.” Now, I don’t know about you, but for me those were awfully heavy words. Ever since I moved on from his school, his words continue to come back to me. They are a check on my life. They make me ask myself “Am I doing the kind of work that he saw me doing before, the kind of work that would make him still want to work with me?”

At the same time I was having those thoughts last spring, two things happened. First, I have been encouraged by a few people to restart the international summer service trip program, but this time as an independent non-profit. It’s a fine idea, but it’s really hard to do outside of a school. Much easier to start it as a programme within a school as a teacher. But I was also leading a SPARKS group and I knew the power of positive risks and wanted to practice what I was preaching. So I thought, I should make a positive step toward restarting the programme. I contacted all the current teachers I knew to see if they would like to do the programme. But beyond that I asked myself what more could I do which would make my actions risky? Then I asked what do people value most? Money.

The second thing that happened is that the student I mentioned actually contacted me that spring of his junior year. He now was wondering if he could come and work for me for the summer since he hadn’t found anything else. Gulp. I told him some of the stuff I was working on and he said he was in. I couldn’t believe it. So I took a positive risk and paid him for a summer internship to work for me. And I didn’t pay pittance; I paid him well (I asked another former student and former trip participant what she was getting in her DC internship and paid that amount). I also gave him 20% free creative time just like I am supposed to get at work. And all he had to do was work from his computer and phone for me for 3 months.

The main task I gave was a creative one. Yes, he had to contact NGO workers around the world to see who would host a group for the summer next year, and yes he had to contact schools, but I had a bigger question: how do you transition the non-profit to a social enterprise for-profit-based model? I needed an idea, and I needed a good one. I even gave him a book to read about social entrepreneurship. He did a good job for me. He contacted schools and got a list of global NGO volunteers and workers who were interested. He was unable to come up with an idea.

This is why the Italy trip was so amazing for me. It was exactly one year from the summer of 2011 when his internship happened, but I had an idea—a SPARK if you will. And I saw a viable, connected, related profit-based business to help support the international summer service project. It was important to me because you could always come up with an unrelated business that just gives profit to your non-profit or towards your social aims. But I was hoping the actual business would be intricately related to the social aims.

Unfortunately, due to a lot of unforeseen circumstances I may not have the manpower to enact it, and the people I want to work directly on it are not available. So I’m currently thinking things through, and we’ll see what happens. But all of this is to say that the insight would not have happened, yes, without the trip to Italy, but also without having taken the risk to hire my intern and start thinking about possible ideas. Taking a first committed and risky step is very important to get you in the direction you want to go.

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