An Interview with Tom Dawkins

Interviews

What moved you to build your social business?

I’ve always been very cause-focused. Prior to StartSomeGood I had founded three non-profits and a previous social enterprise, all in the participation and fundraising area. The specific inspiration for StartSomeGood came, first, from a recognition of an endemic innovation gap in the social sector and, second, an example of how it could be solved.

The inability of the traditional social funding sector to support innovation – ie. things not yet proven to work – is an acute problem in a world where the pace of change is constantly accelerating. We need new solutions to old problems, and new ideas to take advantage of new opportunities. Most funders, whether government, foundations or corporates, want to fund things they know will work, with strong metrics and evidence. There’s a real aversion to risk and sense of shame whenever things don’t work. We really need to shift that culture and learn from what we’ve seen in the technology industry – you need to make a lot of bets, and accept a lot of failure, to find the truly transformative ideas.

My co-founder Alex and I were very inspired by Kickstarter as they started to grow fast in 2009. We felt they were solving a very similar problem to the one we wanted to solve: how do you help innovators go around the gate-keepers (for them, record label execs, publishers, gallery owners etc, for us, foundations, government funding, etc) and connect them directly with – and help them build – communities of supporters? We wanted to provide social entrepreneurs the same opportunity they were providing creative entrepreneurs.

Crowdfunding is a powerful tool for supporting the new, and by breaking down the investment into smaller pieces across a larger “crowd” you reduce the individual risk of failure to an acceptable level. As a result we’ve had the great pleasure of working with thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators doing amazing things with food production, ethical fashion, apps, hardware and so much more.

What are you passionate about? What motivates and inspires you?

I’m passionate about people, and about the kind of world we can create together. Every organisation I have founded has, in one way or another, been about improving the quality of our democracy, by inspiring greater participation, building communities and providing trailing and tools for changemaking. To me, democracy is about so much more than politics. It’s about the capacity we have – or lack – to affect change. A truly democratic society is one where everyone has a stake in the future and is about to bring about a better future. That’s why I’m so passionate about crowdfunding, because it’s all about people, and all about giving control to local communities and grassroots innovators to bring a better future into being.

What is your greatest professional accomplishment?

I’m working on it right now! I’ve never been prouder of the work I’ve done than what we’re doing right now at StartSomeGood, championing innovation and supporting innovators around the world. But I’m also very proud of founding of Australian youth non-profit Vibewire when I was at university. I led Vibewire for 8 years and ran a lot of great projects if I do say so myself, but what I’m most proud about is that Vibewire has now continued for another 9 years and counting without me. Not many student-founded non-profits last 17+ years.

Who has been your biggest influence?

It’s a cliché but I’d have to say my parents, and especially their attitude to their work. One was in public broadcasting and the other in town planning, and their jobs were never just jobs to them, they were deeply passionate about what they were doing and seemed to bring their own selves to their work. So my mental model of work from my earliest age wasn’t as the source of a paycheck but rather as a vehicle for making a difference and doing something you were passionate about. This is a big part of why I’ve always pursued my passions and been able to carve out a career doing so.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

The best piece of advice I was ever given was from my under 12’s cricket coach. I would walk out to bat and look around the field, trying to memorise the positions of the fielders in order to avoid hitting the ball to them. And then I would hit the ball straight to them repeatedly. My coach said to me: “Don’t focus on the fielders, focus on the gaps.” And when I did that, like magic, my arms would steer the ball straight through those gaps (sometimes. I wasn’t all that great at cricket to be honest). Something about this idea has stayed with me my whole life, and it helps remind me not to focus on the challenges, the competitors, the past but rather on the opportunity, the mission, the future. That’s where all the good stuff is!

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