Sphaera CEO voted one of '19 Social Entrepreneurs to Watch for in 2017'

Astrid Scholz, CEO of Sphaera, recently was featured by Conscious Company as one of nineteen social entrepreneurs to watch for in the upcoming year. 

Read their summary below:

As an economist and longtime nonprofit executive, Scholz began to notice some troubling patterns in how the social change industry works. The ways organizations raise money, design and implement programs, and measure success in relative isolation from each other felt ineffectual in the face of the urgent crises the planet is facing. So she pivoted to become a for-purpose tech entrepreneur, and is now working to build a platform for organizations to share ideas, innovations, and solutions with others in their field. Sphaera’s mission is to accelerate the pace of change by connecting the practitioners, funders, and innovators working on the world’s toughest problems. So far, the company has raised about $2 million in non-dilutive funding, and has 15 early adopters of its enterprise product who are creating solution hubs for topics from inclusive economic opportunities in US cities to farmer-led agricultural practices in Africa to community economic development in island nations. The company had revenues of over $400,000 in 2016.

>> Her Inspiration “I am motivated by the sense that if we can figure this out, the systems change I can help catalyze is orders of magnitude greater than what I could do running one organization.”

Also featured in the article is friend of Sphaera, Jessica Norwood, who is the founder of the Runway Project. 

Read the full article here: https://consciouscompanymedia.com/featured/19-social-entrepreneurs-watch-2017/

A Breakthrough: Our CEO's Path to "Disrupting the Social Change Industry"

The College of Natural Resources of University of California, Berkeley, in their Fall 2016 magazine, Breakthroughs, profiles the career of Sphaera's Chief Everything Officer, Astrid Scholz. She is a 2001 PhD graduate of the College of Natural Resources’ Energy and Resources Group (ERG).

Here is a highlight of article. Follow the link below to read the entire piece. 

A common shortcoming of nonprofits and NGOs, Scholz says, is that they tell good stories about how they’ve solved problems, but do a poor job of making their solutions available to others. That’s where Sphaera comes in. It invites social-change organizations to bring their problems and solutions together on the company’s nascent publicly accessible web platform. The long-term goal: hosting a vibrant online community of more effective problem-solvers. “We need to figure this stuff out much more quickly,” Scholz says, “because the world is on fire.”
To fund its ambitious goal, Sphaera’s seven-member team offers its cloud-based subscription software to organizations that want to create their own online solution-sharing communities on Sphaera’s platform. With first-year revenues of $185,000, paying clients like the state of Louisiana and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, and partners that include the Skoll Foundation, Oxfam America, Mercy Corps, and Ecotrust, Sphaera is on its way. But it’s still a lean operation: In addition to leading the company, Scholz earns her “chief everything” title by also doing the books and taking out the trash.

Read the full article here: https://nature.berkeley.edu/breakthroughs/astrid-scholz

image source: Charlie Nguyen, https://www.flickr.com/photos/brainchildvn/2280342987


As a social change practitioner like myself, you may have seen the recent Forbes article titled: Is Impact Investing A Solution To Global Problems? Without going into a rant about click-bait title writers, my unequivocal answer is “no”.

Impact investing is not a solution to the social problems listed in this article (i.e. climate change, resource scarcity, exploding global population growth); however, impact investing is critical to get funding to the (social) entrepreneurs that are solving these problems. To this end, there are few organizations more thoughtful and effective than ImpactAssets, who are profiled in the article.

Impact investing is called impact investing, because it’s mission is to invest in organizations that create impact not because the investment itself is impactful.

This is not just semantics. By focusing on investment as a solution to global problems we detach ourselves from the role of the organizations that create and implement solutions to global problems. If we don’t account for the social value generated by these solutions then we can only understand the success of impact investment as financial return.

Don’t get me wrong, money (whether investment, donation, or revenue) is extra-special and super-duper important, and the people who can raise, manage, and shepherd those resources are essential; but money is not a solution. As Audrey Lorde said (pdf) “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Many of the most urgent problems we face throughout the world today have their roots in the rapacious and destructive incentives of casino-like economic behavior. Social enterprise and impact investing are an antidote to this. Recognizable social value is the goal and sustaining financial value is the means.

“No financial man will ever understand business because financial people think a company makes money. A company makes shoes, and no financial man understands that. They think money is real.” -- Peter Drucker

Maybe a good definition of impact investment would be “finance for great shoes” and, to continue to abuse the metaphor, at Sphaera, we care about cobblers - we focus on real solutions to actual problems. Here are a few examples:

The Sitka Technology Group is a social enterprise that sell technology tools for conservation, restoration, and sustainable development. GeoOptix is an enterprise-level, end-to-end environmental data management platform that is designed to support research, monitoring, and evaluation efforts by transforming your field data into actionable intelligence

Shelby County, Tennessee was one of 13 winners of the HUD’s recent National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC). This solution was created to provide flooding and general resiliency strategies to the citizens of the greater Memphis area.

And maybe most apropos to the article, here is a solution from Harvard Business School on how Impact Investors actually measure their impact.

Like empty apartments before AirBnB, Solutions were stranded assets before Sphaera. We take existing solutions and deconstruct them into building blocks (the squares you see in the images above) so they can be easily discovered, remixed, and reused. Through our “Solutioning” process, cobblers and (impact) investors can find the solutions they need to connect to the impact they intend to create in the world.

Steve Wright, Community Lead


Let's Find The Best Impact Technology

Sphaera is curating what works around #ImpTech.

Come explore the collection of ideas and approaches to put technology (and tech companies) in service of the public good and the change we seek.

Sphaera's CEO Astrid Scholz has put together an initial solutioning board, and is inviting change-agents to come create additional building blocks or solutions, and share them here for all to use. 

What's your best #ImpTech tool that others across the globe can benefit from?

Add it to our live Impact Technology solutioning board: https://resilience-exchange.sphaera.world/boards/impact-technology

100M Ways to Change the World

Proud to announce that our very own Astrid Scholz has been selected to the MacArthur Foundation's evaluation panel for their 100&Change $100M global solution challenge.

A new competition launched today will award a $100 million grant to a single proposal designed to help solve a critical problem affecting people, places, or the planet. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s competition, called 100&Change, is open to organizations working in any field of endeavor anywhere. Applicants must identify both the problem they are trying to solve, as well as their proposed solution. Competitive proposals will be meaningful, verifiable, durable, and feasible.

Get Astrid's perspective on the challenge here.

From Workshops to Webinars, Sphaera Adds Solutioning Capacity

Sphaera welcomes global development veteran Linzi Fidelin as Training Lead

With 9 years working in 17+ countries, Linzi has worked across cultures, languages, and levels of seniority to bring about sustainable solutions for clients such as Care, WFP, and BASF among others.

Specializing in capacity development and facilitation, Linzi brings a human element to her work that recognizes the individual nature of each scenario, and a belief that people dealing with the problems are the most likely to have the answers.



Sphaera Solutions, a leader in social change enablement, and Induct™ have entered into an agreement whereby Sphaera and Induct will integrate their cloud-based platforms to create a novel social change innovation ecosystem.  

Sphaera and Induct’s shared goal is to accelerate the pace of social change by making an abundance of best practices and proven innovative solutions discoverable, reusable, and adaptable for funders and practitioners.

The partnership will create a searchable repository of best practices accessible by each of their clients. These practices consist of innovative solutions to problems developed by one organization that can easily be adapted and re-used by other organizations.   

Induct and Sphaera will help their clients to deploy online communities for managing the ideation and innovation process, and for the collaboration on, and development of new solutions to environmental and social problems around the world.

“We’ve looked carefully at the healthcare innovation management system that Induct has built with leading hospitals worldwide, and decided that we wanted to offer that same approach to our social sector clients,” said Astrid Scholz, CEO of Sphaera. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we are partnering to integrate our platforms. This allows us to build a world-class social change innovation ecosystem more quickly. The combined capability of our platforms allows our users to accelerate impact by reusing, adapting, and scaling proven solutions developed by their peers.”    

We are delighted to be working with Sphaera to build out a social change innovation ecosystem,” said Alf Martin Johansen, CEO of Induct. “We believe that a partnership with Sphaera will enable the same type of benefits that Induct is now delivering to hospitals world-wide that are part of our healthcare innovation ecosystem. These organizations are all trying to solve essentially the same set of problems. It makes perfect sense to share proven innovation solutions and best practices that have already been deployed by one organization successfully across multiple organizations.”

Download full news release

Questioning the Business of Philanthropy

Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up. — President Bill Clinton

In preparing for a panel at the Skoll World Forum next month, I’ve been reflecting on that quote by President Clinton, the state of philanthropy, and the power and potential of technology — and technologists — to disrupt it.

Just the other day, Gabe Kleinman announced Medium’s search for a Head of Social Impact, a job that’s premised on the potential for platforms like this to be useful for solving problems in the real world. This announcement pairs well with an earlier article on the end of Big Philanthropy in which he diagnosed a set of behaviors and patterns by private foundations that create counterproductive and myopic approaches for identifying and tackling real-world problems. The agile frameworks of technology, plus the agile mindset of its denizens, makes it a good candidate for disrupting the social change industry. And not a moment too soon, given the state of the world!

Trained as an economist, I think of social change as an industry that exists because governments and markets fail to provide everything people and planet need to be well. Non-profit organizations and social enterprises take philanthropic funding, and turn it into goods and services that aren’t otherwise available. This industry cannot afford to waste time and resources in the face of the urgent challenges of our time (Climate change! Water! Refugees! to name a few). Yet its basic supply chain exhibits many problems, summarized in this picture:

As a recovering non-profit executive I can personally attest to these, and other, pathologies in the social change industry. I have lost count of the number of times I have danced the “dance of deception” with foundations, which is how my friend David Sawyer describes the process by which non-profit organizations contort themselves into alignment with foundations’ logic models in order to bridge the gap between what foundations care about and want to fund, and what’s needed to solve problems on the ground. Industry insiders like Burkhard Gnaerig have diagnosed a systemic malaise, pointing to the global erosion of the core business model of civil society organizations, and exhorting the industry to lead the necessary transformation or be trounced by technological advances.

In a preview of 2016 trends in international development, Tris Lumleypredicts that

…in 2016 large established NGOs will wake up to the potential that startups have to disrupt and transform their own strategies and approaches. The pressure to innovate will grow, and the potential to be left behind by startups backed by tech entrepreneurs moving into philanthropy will become a real threat.
The structures and bureaucracy of large NGOs and the locked-in inertia of their traditional funding sources mean that it’s incredibly hard for them to transform their models and strategies. Yet that’s exactly what needs to happen. If we look at any of the megatrends sweeping through the sector — digital transformation, the shift to the south, or increasing focus on market-based approaches — these require the rebuilding of organisations’ approaches from the ground up.
In the private sector, entrepreneurial startups with low overheads and more agile ways of working are fuelling massive disruption across almost all industries. And these models are already becoming more visible in the non-profit sector — just look at startups like […] Sphaera to see what’s possible.
Winners: established NGOs that learn from positive examples in the private sector and invest in collaborative partnerships with startups — rather than viewing them as a threat. These organisations will find themselves in a much better position to respond to the forces driving change in international development.
Losers: established NGOs that fail to address the external forces driving change in international development. These organisations will find themselves increasingly stuck and ultimately in danger of obsolescence.

After 15 years of working in NGOs, I now find myself at the helm of a for-profit, for-purpose tech company that puts a solution-centered view of the world at the heart of our platform for discovering, sharing, and scaling what works. Our approach at Sphaera is predicated on the notion that there is an abundace of solutions, creativity, resources, and value that can fruitfully be organized on a peer-to-peer platform.

Weare building a sort of GitHub for social change, putting the best solutions into the hands of people working on the frontlines of change, everywhere. Perhaps not surprisingly, our enterprise is neither a 501(c)3 nor a C-Corp — instead, we are incorporating as a Public Benefit Corporation: like a C-Corp, but with the social purpose hardwired into it. Interestingly, this puts us at odds with the “business as usual” of both foundations and tech companies — at times painfully so. Building infrastructure to scale solutions to real world problems, rather than implementing them directly, makes us unsuitable for 99% of foundation funding. Emerging as we do out of a non-profit organization, and with an origin story that diverges from the Silicon Valley norm, makes us unsuitable for 99% of venture financing. As a matter of principle, we believe in the competitive advantage of collaboration for tackling the challenges of the 21t century. It would create cognitive dissonance of epic proportions to now go about building our business using the uber-competitive land grab strategies prevalent among most tech companies. Our mascot is not the mythical, solitary, unicorn; instead, our operating company is named Armillaria, after the largest living organism on Earth. Not coincidentally it is a highly networked creature.

Sothis, then, is the solution-centered innovation that is now required — it’s not enough to have technologists work on solutions to the urgent problems of our time. It’s not enough for technologists-turned-philanthropists to create new vehicles and approaches to sharing their newfound wealth. On their own, these two very welcome developments can still lead to the same siloed, fragmented approach to solving problems that’s characterizing philanthropy today.

If we want to change the business of change, we need more tech investors to practice “world positive” (to borrow Obvious Ventures’s term) investing — and not just into the niches of specific clean technologies, food, or whatever other silos du jour, but also into the infrastructure and platforms that connect between the silos, support practitioners in getting more done, and reward the co-creation of value.

And finally, the innovation needs to be more than skin deep: we can’t solve systemic, large scale, urgent problems using corporate structures that are not adapted to the networked, horizontal, agile way of the change we are seeking. So we need funders and entrepreneurs of all stripes to evolve businesses that are designed for the networked, collaborative approaches for accelerating social change — the platform cooperatives that are emerging in some areas are encouraging, as are decentralized organizations made possible by Blockchain and associated technologies.

How does such solution-centered innovation happen? Like all innovation, it comes from finding the adjacent possible, by seeking cross-fertilization across sectors and industries, and by the collision of hunches from across a spectrum of practice. So it’s not that we should be looking to technology and technologists to “save philanthropy”, or expect them to do social change better because they have disrupted other industries. It’s that the collision of technology with the challenge posed by President Clinton is poised to make philanthropy better and faster — and one day, hopefully in my life time, obsolete.

Please check out the panel on April 13, follow the ongoings at the Skoll World Forum on Twitter, and chime in here with any questions and comments — for discussion on the panel and beyond.