Serial social entrepreneur, Michael Norton OBE, speaks in Oxford

The serial social entrepreneur, Michael Norton, recently spoke at 80,000 Hours: Oxford.

Michael started his career as a scientist, merchant banker and publisher before becoming a social activist. Since then, he has helped to found over 40 charities and social enterprises, including UnLtd, which has raised an endowment of over £100 million to support thousands of social enterprises. He spoke to us about his career and what he’s learned about making a difference.

What follows are some notes I made based on his presentation. All are paraphrased, and I can’t guarantee they accurately reflect Michael’s views.

Presentation notes

Anyone can be a social entrepreneur or activist and make a difference

  • It can either be through your job or through ‘evening entrepreneurship’.
  • Small positive day-to-day acts of inspiration can mobilise others.
  • Technology gives ordinary people the ability to reach huge numbers of people.
  • Consider the example of 9 year old girl, Martha Payne, who uploaded photos of her school dinners every day. Her blog ended up with 10 million views, and helped to trigger legislation to improve school meals.

The biggest problem in the world is apathy

Many social problems have solutions, but they’re not being put into practice.

How can overcome apathy?

  • Encourage people to take little steps. Lots of little steps add up, and they encourage people to take bigger steps.
  • Get involved in communities of people making a difference.
  • We need more leaders. There’s lots of people out there who want to make a difference, and want an idea to get behind.

Michael wrote The Everyday Activist and 365 Ways to Save the World based on this idea.

Work on something fun

If it’s fun you’ll stay involved and you’ll tell others in a way that gets them involved. Don’t act out of guilt or duty.

How to get started making a difference?

  • Start where your interests are, since that’s what you’ll know most about and stay motivated to work on.
  • Think about what your skills are, though bear in mind your most relevant skills might be as simple as being a native English speaker. You don’t need to be an expert to be the expert.
  • Once you’ve got an idea, talk about it with lots of people to refine it. In particular, check what other groups are doing in the area. At UnLtd, they were surprised at how many of the ideas in the applications were already being done by other groups. They were also surprised at how many ideas just involve telling people to do things (which he’s skeptical will work).
  • Then just take one step towards making it happen: (i) this shows commitment, which gets more people involved (ii) getting started is the hardest step, but once you’re going, other good things tend to happen that you didn’t foresee.
  • Don’t think money is the main bottleneck. You can do a lot without it. Michael used to advise organisations to have three fundraising plans: Plan A: the budget you want to raise. Plan B: a way to get started with something much smaller to get some proof of concept. Plan C: a way to get started with no funding. Making yourself dependent on money can also reduce your flexibility.
  • Form follows function. Don’t worry about whether it’s going to be a charity, social enterprise, think tank or something else. Just get going and let the legal structure emerge from your needs.

Back people not ideas

UnLtd focuses on identifying inspiring, committed, energetic, able people; not specific ideas for organisations. The ideas always change.

What next step would you take if starting your career again?

  • It’s valuable to spend some time exploring lots of different paths.
  • Michael found working in finance and publishing with voluntary work on the side a useful background for the rest of his career.
  • Previously there was a stark choice for social activists between: (i) go and earn a lot of money in business and give it away, or (ii) become an activist or entrepreneur straight away and be poor. Today, you can found or join a social enterprise – a business that upholds social values – to combine profit and social impact.
  • If you want to get involved in social enterprise or activism, it’s best to learn by doing, so get started right away. Building a track record is also what will enable you to get more resources later down the line.

My reflections

  • I think people in the effective altruism community often focus on money as the bottleneck, because effective altruism grew out of the effective philanthropy movement. This might be causing us to overlook causes where innovation and leadership are the key bottlenecks, even though they might be more prevalent and pressing.
  • If you’re focused on innovation / leadership / activism / social entrepreneurship etc. it makes more sense to focus on local causes, because you have much better knowledge of them and ability to get something new going.
  • We often focus on information and analysis as the key bottleneck, rather than apathy. This could be wrong, and probably is for the typical person.