Dec 102012

Written by: Drew Bewick
Managing Director, Tree House Ventures / CSVC Social Entrepreneur in Residence

The Washington region has a growing number of resources and networking events for would-be entrepreneurs, innovators, business professionals, and future leaders. Advice is particularly valuable when developing a business plan, attracting capital, or expanding services into new markets. One leadership challenge, however, often underestimated, but very important to achieving competitive advantage in a knowledge economy involves improving workforce engagement and motivation, especially to sustain creativity, performance, and problem-solving capacity to think “outside-the-box”.

Engagement & Motivation

Contrary to conventional wisdom, recent social science research, including research by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston (FRB) in 2005, suggests traditional incentives – such as goals set by managers or rewards in the form of monetary bonuses – actually dull employee creativity and problem-solving and are not effective motivators alone for newer 21st century tasks often associated with knowledge work.

Dan Pink, whose 2009 Ted Global-London presentation about the “Puzzle of Motivation” is captured on YouTube, suggests a key driver of motivation of individuals engaged in knowledge work may be influenced more on the basis of allowing individuals to develop more autonomy, mastery, and purpose, instead of assigning goals and rewards. Social enterprises, organizations that borrow and adapt the logic of the private sector to address issues that have traditionally been beyond its scope, excel at achieving higher levels of workforce engagement and motivation and can provide valuable insights about workforce engagement and motivation in the broader context of improving local business productivity and competitiveness. Allowing individuals to find personal meaning and purpose in the work they do, especially in tasks that require creativity, problem solving, and thinking, can be a winning strategy.

Successful Local Social Enterprises

ACTion Alexandria, for example, is Alexandria’s online platform for community change. It connects neighbors and local organizations to share ideas, create action and make an impact. Launched in February 2011, ACTion Alexandria has already made a measurable impact on the community in-part because it enables volunteers and collaborators to find personal meaning in supporting their community. Highlights achieved in just 18 months:

•    $559,654 raised in community investment (counting playground grants & online fundraising);
•    2,542 community members = 1.82% participation rate by total population;
•    3,920 items donated for Alexandria nonprofits (medicine, books, food, diapers, etc.);
•    437 actions taken on the site by Alexandria citizens to support local nonprofits;
•    229 ideas submitted by citizens in idea challenges; and
•    6,393 votes cast during community idea challenges by approximately 2,000 people.

Building-To-Teach is a program of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation with a mission to create a more competent and competitive American workforce by training instructors and engaging volunteers to help students learn and use math through hands-on building projects and exercises. Launched in March 2012, the growth of the Building-To-Teach (B2T) instructor training program in the first 6 months exceeded expectations:

Online Training
•    145 instructors involved in training
•    86 organizations participating
•    28 states, DC + Chile and Canada represented

In-Person Training
•    60 instructors trained
•    35 organizations participating
•    15 states represented
•    1,500 (est.) students served within 12 month

Empowered Women International, established in 2002 with offices in Alexandria and Rockville, provides a 3-month intensive Entrepreneur Training for Success (ETS) course along with ongoing business coaching, networking and support services that have trained hundreds of disadvantaged women to launch new jobs and small businesses. EWI’s impact, made possible by the motivation and engagement of its volunteers, is noteworthy:

•    58% of graduates increased their production level after completing ETS;
•    34% plan to hire additional employees next year;
•    49% of graduates increased their personal incomes after completing ETS, on average between
•    90% of graduates volunteered with a local organization;
•    83% donated money or goods to charitable organizations; and
•    Unemployment among EWI clients decreased by 34%

Underpinning the success of these local social enterprises doing good are highly engaged and motivated workforces designed deliberately for the purpose of sustaining creativity and innovation to make a difference in people’s lives. In today’s knowledge economy fueled by out-of-the- box thinking and innovation, a highly engaged and motivated workforce is becoming a necessary ingredient to improve business productivity and competitiveness. For those who seek to improve business performance and productivity, local social enterprises might have as much to teach us about the importance of motivation and engagement as doing good.


Drew Bewick is a Social Entrepreneur-In-Residence at the Center for Social Value Creation within the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. He brings more than 20 years of experience involving the most challenging issues where technology and innovation intersect. As Managing Director of Tree House Ventures, LLC, Drew serves as an advisor to multiple companies and non-profit organizations assisting visionary innovators launch successful ventures by discovering opportunities and using entrepreneurial principles to organize, launch, and manage a successful venture to make an impact.  For more information on how to take your socially driven idea to reality, e-mail

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