A few months ago I sat down with my dear friend Christian Vanizette, co-founder of MakeSense. MakeSense is a global community of 40’000+ engaged citizens across the globe working on social change initiatives in 45 cities, run by 2500 community volunteers with a staff of 80 people in 8 offices across the globe. The scale, approach and impact of MakeSense is impressive and full of learning opportunities for other community builders.
A Tahitian social entrepreneur
Christian grew up in French Polynesia in a socially conscious family: his grandfather set up the first social security system in Tahiti and his parents were public servants. Already at a young age Christian started engaging with social issues: with 15 he started an anonymous blog discussing local politics and the island’s social and environmental issues. To challenge himself and break away from island life, Christian moved to Europe to study and then worked for a variety of innovative companies, learning about design thinking, creativity and business incubation processes, all of which would influence his entrepreneurial path.
It all started with a journey to “make sense” of social entrepreneurship
Inspired by Muhammad Yunus’s book about social business, Christian embarked in 2010 on a backpacking trip across Asia to meet social entrepreneurs and help them solve their challenges. Christian started making short videos on his phone about the social entrepreneurs he was meeting and put them on Facebook and his personal blog, www.makesense.org. And every city he went to, he organized a workshop that followed a simple format: during 3 hours he would bring together citizens eager to work on local social and use a design thinking process to come up with solutions for the concrete challenge of a local social entrepreneur.
When posting his findings online, people started reaching out to Christian, asking how they could get involved. And when he posted photos of the workshops, people asked how they could organize their own workshops. Christian could tell that there was a huge, untapped hunger of young people across the globe what wanted to use their energy and creativity for social good. Most of them were probably never going to be social entrepreneurs themselves, but they wanted to support social entrepreneurs, and ideally in tangible ways.
MakeSense is born
So Christian wrote a 5 page PDF template that explained how to organize a design thinking workshop to solve a social entrepreneur’s challenge. (Here is version 3 of that template, 7 months into the MakeSense journey). And then he encouraged anyone to organize their own. People who attended a workshop started to organize one themselves. People reading about it online started organizing workshops across the globe. And slowly but surely one event turned into a series of local events, and that turned into groups of local enthusiasts that wanted to meet regularly in their local cities. The MakeSense community was born and has by now a global footprint. And Muhammad Yunus featured MakeSense in his last book “A World of 3 Zeros” as an example on how to build a community of young people for social business – full circle!
How local chapters are structured
MakeSense calls their local chapters “hotspots” (and their community members “gangster” ;-)) and by now MakeSense has 130 hotspots in 45 countries, all run by volunteers. Every hotspot has 2 main goals: 1) To raise awareness around social issues. 2) To activate people and engage them in concrete action for social good.
What unites the MakeSense community is their shared belief in social change and their willingness to take action. And everything within the community is organized around a list of social campaigns, based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. In a first step local hotspots use art to raise awareness around the campaign issues. They organize concerts (called MakeSense Rooms), where they invite artists that are connected to a particular social issue to perform. This is a great way for them to spread the word and recruit new volunteers. They also organize bigger, barcamp style retreats once a year that they call “SenseCamp”.
In a second step they engage local citizens to take action through design thinking workshops (still based on the original idea, but now with extended support of the social entrepreneur and their ventures that goes beyond the actual event), prototyping workshops and a social venture incubator hosted at their regional offices with full time staff in Paris (for Europe), Beirut (for the Middle East), Dakar (for West Africa), Mexico (for Latin America) and Manilla (for South East Asia).
The crucial role of global cross-pollinators between the different local hubs
When learning about MakeSense’s growth and development, I was inspired by how intentionally they use “cross-pollinators” who bring the experiences and values of MakeSense to different local communities. When Christian set out on his first backpacking trip, he called it a SenseTour, as he was trying to “make sense” of social entrepreneurship, going from city to city. And he realized that this personal connection in real life made a huge difference for their online community, too. Christian: “The people who were most active online, were the ones we had met in real lives”.
On his trip, not only did he help spark excitement among local change agents, he helped them also connect with peers in other cities. And – most importantly – he gave them a sense that they were part of something bigger, a global movement. In Christian’s words: “We were just connecting the dots”.
That’s why to this day, backpackers are an amazing type of ambassador and evangelist for MakeSense. So if you’re a backpacker and eager to go and spend 6 months in South America, but you want to be more than just a tourist and deeply engage with local social entrepreneurs, MakeSense will help you organize your own “SenseTour”. They will train you how to organize workshops wherever you go and connect you with the local community so that you can stay with locals. As backpackers move from MakeSense hotspot to the next, they become the nodes of trust in this global community. Current and past SenseTours can be found here http://sensetour.makesense.org
The crucial role of volunteer training
In our conversation, there was one insight that stood out to me: MakeSense invests very heavily into training its volunteers. For a community that large and that dependent on volunteers, they see training as absolutely crucial for the groups sustainability, quality and growth. And MakeSense realized that training could be valuable not just for the organization, but for the volunteers as well: the community can provide a rich learning experience where the volunteers gain valuable skills that they can use in their work elsewhere.
MakeSense has developed two different types of training programs, each lasting 3 months: one is for people wanting to start a new local hotspot, the other one is a leadership training for existing chapter leaders. While the training happens online, the organization wanted to make sure that it feels human. That’s why the training happens in cohorts and is taught in a peer-to-peer way: the best graduates from the previous cohorts are invited to help teach in the next cohort. Not just organizational, but also personal sustainability are part of the curriculum: the training covers community building from a holistic point of view, including questions of personal balance and energy management.
The importance of collective leadership and intentional governance
MakeSense stresses the need for collective leadership and non-hierarchy based governance both on the chapter-level and as an organization overall. Over the last few years, they have implemented a model based on Teal Organization, inspired by Frederic Laloux’s book and methodology “Reinventing Organizations”. All decisions are made based on consent, which in Christian’s words took some time to be adapted, but has increased the engagement across the community. That is another reason why training is important, so that chapter coordinators can be trained in this governance methodology.
People join to have impact, they stay for the relationships and that’s where they have the biggest impact
Christian said: “people often come to MakeSense to solve social problems, and then they come back and stay engaged because of the relationships they build”. I found that so fascinating and something I observe similarly in other communities: while there is a specific reason that attracts people to join a community in the first place and binds them together (in this case a shared hunger for social action), it is really that sense of belonging and trust that makes the group uniquely powerful and valuable over time. In Christian’s words “the long-term impact of MakeSense comes through the relationships and connections that people build. Solving global social problems requires collaboration and cooperation at large scale. This only happens through trusted relationships that are built over time. This an algorithm can’t give you”.
A non profit financed through partners and client work
MakeSense is a non-profit. It is financed on the one hand by finding corporate sponsors for their big campaign topics. So for example their “Energies for Climate” campaign is sponsored by the French electric utility company EDF. And they have a corporate advisory side where they help corporations drive forward social innovation initiatives. They tap into their diverse network and deep experience with social entrepreneurship and design thinking to solve these challenges for the corporates https://organisations.makesense.org/.
When reflecting on their business model, Christian said that it made sense for them to be a non-profit, “because most value is created by the volunteers” and he also pointed out that running a similar model without the help of a community would cost ten times more and be less effective because their theory of change is based on grass-root engagement.
Impressive engagement metrics
Here are some metrics that stood out to me:
- 86% of hot spot organizers stay engaged for about 2 years, because MakeSense helps them connect with like-minded people, helps them learn, helps them build a network in an industry they might want to work in.
- On average their 40’000 volunteers attend to 2-3 events per year. For 31% of them it’s their first time ever volunteering.
- The community has worked with 3200 social entrepreneurs and 80% of them report they are happy with the outcome of the workshops
Organized through Facebook groups
MakeSense is mostly organized through Facebook. The organization runs a big Facebook page. And all local hotspots organize themselves through Facebook groups. And on top of that, each campaign has a dedicated Facebook group as well. This keeps their digital infrastructure simple, yet their activity levels fluctuate with the Facebook algorithm: when Facebook wants to give more visibility to their pages and groups, their online groups become more active. And vice versa.