The Evolution of Social Impact at ConsenSys
ConsenSys’s experiments balancing the bottom line with sustainable, social impact
Impact at ConsenSys
It’s been almost 3 years since ConsenSys began our journey in social impact, and along that journey we have realized our strengths, weaknesses, and future strategies to both empower marginalized communities while maintaining a firm-wide focus on the bottom-line as a startup.
In fact, the very definition of the term “social impact” was somewhat of a divisive issue in the Mesh. Some perspectives held that the term meant any initiative that impacted society more broadly, and could be applied to efforts that don’t necessarily benefit the impoverished, but may improve another aspect of the modern world (i.e. fin-tech innovations, the creation of more transparent platforms, etc.). Another dominating view was more akin to the social sector definition of “social impact,” which suggested that it consists of efforts focused on uplifting marginalized and often times under-resourced communities gain access to fundamental needs and civil liberties. Between these two definitions existed the Mesh’s understanding of what social impact is, and thus, where we think we are positioned to affect positive change within the lens of social impact.
Many people in the crypto-community will mention that the very reason they became passionate about the blockchain space was because the technology empowered them to address social issues. The base tenants of blockchains being immutable, transparent, and secure lend themselves well to increase accountability where there may be fraud or exploitation, re-establishing fairness in a modern economy of rents, and, potentially, connecting under-resourced community members to the global economy by providing digital identities and lighter-weight fin-tech solutions. However, the reality of what’s built by the existing blockchain community has focused more on overcoming protocol and scalability layer obstacles and developing decentralized finance applications than developing simple, methodology driven solutions leveraging blockchain technology to empower those in need. The latter observation is not meant to undermine the importance of such efforts, as without scalability and security, public blockchains will not be able to support life-changing decentralized applications that could be built on top of it to affect thousands, if not millions of lives, but it is somewhat ironic that the very ethos of decentralization — the hope to dis-intermediate power centers for a more distributed engagement structures — is not being fully realized by our decentralist community.
Lesson 1: Establishing a firm oriented understanding of how “social impact” is defined is crucial for developing widespread support for impact initiatives.
ConsenSys’s cultural definition of ‘social impact’ meant wasn’t clearly established until 2018, a year and a half after our first social sector efforts. I sent an anonymized survey across the Mesh to gain direct feedback as to what my colleagues thought social impact was and asked what motivated them to join the blockchain ecosystem in the first place.
146 Mesh members (13% of ConsenSys at the time) provided feedback over a 2 month span, each respondent speaking to what motivates them to remain in the blockchain space, what ‘social impact’ is, and how they think Ethereum is poised to benefit the world. Respondents came from many different teams across the Mesh, as shown in Figure 1 below:
Surprisingly, auditing the Mesh’s definition of social impact was a very sensitive subject. Many people in the firm requested the survey be anonymized, which may speak toward individual confidence, or lack thereof, of personal definitions. The results consisted of the following patterns in response to each survey question:
What motivates you to stay in the blockchain space?
- Trending Words: Potential, New, World, Technology, People, Build, Better, Future, Work, Help, Trust, Create
- Sentiment Analysis: Overall sentiment analysis is neutral. 70% of responses were neutral, while 30% of responses were considered polarizing
- Analysis Summary: Surveyed Mesh members remain in the blockchain space largely because they see the technology as a potential tool to create a better and more supportive future for people everywhere
What’s your definition of ‘social impact?’
- Trending Words: Positive, People, Impact, Social, Live, Change, Society, Improve, Community, Make, World, Help, Human, Well, Good, Profit, Create, Benefit, Better Action
- Sentiment Analysis: Overall sentiment analysis is positive. 80% of responses were positive, while 20% of responses were considered negative
- Analysis Summary: Surveyed Mesh members associate the definition of ‘social impact’ as positive, people-oriented actions that seek to improve society and our communities as a whole for the better. More specifically, community seems to hold a broader definition as ‘humanity,’ rather than a specific subset of society.
In short, what do you think is Ethereum’s greatest potential to benefit the world?
- Trending Words: People, Decentralize, Power, World, System, Value, Ethereum, Help Allow, Tool, Make, Trust, Many, Access
- Sentiment Analysis: Surveyed Mesh members beliefs reflect neutral sentiment, where 80% of responses were neutral and 20% of responses reflected polarizing elements.
- Analysis Summary: Generally, Mesh members see Ethereum as a tool to help further decentralize global systems and provide increased value to the people leveraging the technology.
What is social impact to you and who does it benefit?
- Trending Words: People, Impact, Above, Benefit, Those, Social, Everyone, Live, World, Help, More
- Sentiment Analysis: Overall sentiment analysis is positive. 80% of responses were positive, while 20% of responses were considered negative
- Analysis Summary: Surveyed Mesh members see ‘social impact’ as actions that positively benefit the global community by helping those who need support.
Overall, 76% of survey respondents believed that ConsenSys should become more active around social impact efforts, 80% of which defined social impact with positive sentiment. 15% of survey respondents responded that ConsenSys’s involvement in social impact engagement should be dependent on several factors, including (1) are such engagements financially sustainable for the business to participate in, (2) how does the Mesh define social impact, and (3) if a team is dedicated to conducting social impact engagements, they should only do so if there is job security in that role. Surveyed Mesh members associate the definition of ‘social impact’ as positive, people-oriented actions that seek to improve society and our communities as a whole for the better. More specifically, community seems to hold a broader definition as ‘humanity,’ rather than a specific subset of society.
Ultimately, the subset population that responded to the survey collaboratively defined social impact as “positive, people-oriented actions that seek to improve society and our communities as a whole for the better, especially supporting those in need.” More specifically, the word “community” seems to hold a broader definition as ‘humanity,’ rather than a specific subset of society.
So how could we then exercise this definition into what ConsenSys’s ecosystem of teams does in the world and what we support culturally?
In this brief, I share ConsenSys’s journey, the evolving focuses the firm has supported, the projects we have worked on, and how the firm hopes to participate in social impact initiatives moving forward.
Evolution of Social Impact @ ConsenSys
ConsenSys has iterated through four generations of social impact work from 2017 to 2019, the Blockchain Social Impact Coalition (BSIC), ConsenSys Social Impact (CSI), the BSIC Foundation, and, most recently, Social Impact @ ConsenSys (SIC). Such changes not only reflect cultural fluctuations across the lifetime of ConsenSys as a startup, but also how the social sector is maturing its understanding and use of the technology.
As BSIC continues as a separate entity via the BSIC Foundation, there still exists a need for ConsenSys to be directly involved in social impact initiatives, but doing so as a vertical, when impact opportunities are more or less market-ambiguous, limited how the Mesh approached impact development. However, during the two-year tenure of ConsenSys Social Impact, the Mesh’s corporate social responsibility arm and social sector consultancy, many learnings, case studies, and programs were deployed for good, and these learnings have sharpened our focus as firm moving into our fourth iteration, “Social Impact @ ConsenSys” (SIC). SIC focuses on maximizing firm impact in niche strength areas in a decentralized, but coordinated manner.
But first, before delving into where we’re going, let’s take a look at where we’ve been.
Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition (BSIC)
The Mesh’s first social sector experiment was the creation of the Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition (BSIC). Founded in early 2017 by Benjamin Siegel and Vanessa Grellet, BSIC’s mission was to emulate what the Ethereum Enterprise Alliance created within the corporate ecosystem and make available a blockchain-forward community of nonprofit organizations, social impact firms, and impact investors to the social sector. I later joined the team as the CTO, helping provide a more technical perspective when supporting our NGO partners. BSIC operated out of ConsenSys, and focused on two initiatives:
- Developing and educating a community of social impact agents interested in leveraging blockchain technology
- Facilitating an international hackathon and conference to materialize some of the ideas shared amongst the BSIC community
Over the course of 2017 to 2018, BSIC became a 50+ member initiative and hosted two online hackathons and two conferences in New York City and Washington D.C. Such progress indicated a signal change within the social sector — that NGOs and nonprofits were ready to learn about blockchain and potentially pilot proof of concept deployments to realize the extent of the technology’s potential impact.
Lesson 2: Always build a niche community around the problem you’re trying to solve.
Thus, in late 2017, BSIC transformed into an effort focused on both building social impact communities and providing social sector advisory and solution development services globally.
ConsenSys Social Impact (CSI)
As the climate for blockchain-based solution creation within the social sector finally seemed mature enough, the advisory side of BSIC developed into a team in of itself in an effort to more sustainably support incoming opportunities to conduct research, educate NGOs, and develop impact focused dApps. The team was named “ConsenSys Social Impact,” (CSI) and it served as a funded Circle within ConsenSys dedicated toward applying blockchain technology to issues experienced across the social sector. Founded by Benjamin Siegel, Vanessa Grellet, and myself, our team lead with the initial hypothesis that ‘ConsenSys can serve as a social sector leader as it relates to the application of blockchain technology by researching, partnering, and deploying social impact use cases built on the Ethereum network.’
CSI continued to operate for a year and a half as an autonomous team and, during that tenure, executed 11 projects, created 13 partnerships, developed 3 dApps, and was one of ConsenSys’s strongest performing teams globally. Some of those projects included the recently announced Impactio platform built in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund, the creation of the Bifrost Initiative, and the development of our international partnership with Black Girls CODE.
Lesson 3: Establish a social impact focus and stick to it.
Despite these successes, there were underlying limitations to our team’s approach. Because many organizations from different vantage points of social impact were looking to see how blockchain could positively effect their particular problem, the CSI team had an extremely diversified use case focus. While helpful in some areas, such a multi-threaded focus didn’t serve the ability for a small team to support such requests effectively. A team can’t adequately strategize to maximize its impact (both socially and fiscally) if it has no market-focus, and developing proof-of-concept software has strict team utility implications (i.e. two engineers and one designer can build everything at once). For those in the Mesh not convinced that impact should be a firm focus, CSI didn’t translate the strategic value that it brought to the Mesh in a way that could be understood universally (typically in dollars and cents, like highlighting the advertising value equivalency (AVE)of each of our pilots).
Lesson 4: Communicate social impact metrics in commercial terms. “Strategic value” is best quantified as cost-savings, economic empowerment, and market potential.
Lastly, the ConsenSys Social Impact brand was not used universally across socially impactful engagements that the team didn’t directly facilitate within the Mesh. Accidentally leaving out such efforts somewhat undercut ConsenSys’s brand value as a socially impactful firm. Moving forward would mean finding a more horizontal (firm-wide, rather than team-centric) way of affecting positive change to niche problem statements where strategic value can be quantified as cost-savings, economic empowerment, and market potential.
The Blockchain for Social Impact Coalition spun out from ConsenSys to become its own foundation during the summer of 2018. BSIC continues developing its community of social sector agents, hosting its impact conference, and facilitating its online hackathon. You can learn more about the BSIC Foundation here.
Moving forward, ConsenSys Social Impact is transforming its approach to become a niche-impact focused and horizontally implemented effort, where all Mesh members can contribute toward a focused set of impact initiatives. The social impact focuses that we have established as firm are the following:
- Partnerships — Partnering with NGOs, universities, governments, and CSR teams to research and test new ways that blockchain technology can further social impact.
- Education — Making Ethereum blockchain education more accessible to marginalized community members in an effort to economically empower those in need by increasing their occupational and entrepreneurial leverage within the blockchain ecosystem.
- Cash Assistance & Philanthropy — A keen focus on how DeFi can benefit emerging economies around the world, particularly focused on how blockchain enabled cash assistance programing can open economically excluded locales to simple financial tools, and philanthropy solutions.
- Identity & Accessibility — Leveraging Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) informed by social sector methodology to provide digital identities in under-resourced communities. Decentralized Identity has a long way to go in order to be used by those who are not literate and work within low-connectivity environments. This tenant focuses on developing UX research and DID pilots to make decentralized identity work for those who need it most.
- Supply Chain & Immutable Evidence — Supply chain use cases focused on worker wellness at the manufacturing and raw material development levels is incredibly important to prove that brands are not exploiting those at the “bottom” of the value chain. Very closely related, leveraging blockchain technology to make digital evidence tamper-proof is also a use case our community will focus on.
- Social Impact Assets — Carbon credit systems, recyclable markets, land and livestock collateralized loans, & other forms of inclusive fin-tech products will play a growing role in transitioning emerging economies to that of advanced economic markets. Our focus here is to determine how private and public sectors can best leverage blockchain as a simple tool amongst many others to fully realize the development of such markets.
Overall, our methodology around making the world a better place by leveraging blockchain technology will continue to iterate based on research, pilots, and ensuring that, as a technology firm, we work hand in hand with problem statement subject matter experts to make sure that we are solving problems and not creating them.
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About Robby → Robby is a southern-bred activist and impact entrepreneur. He’s currently CEO of Emerging Impact and served as the former Head of ConsenSys Social Impact. Greenfield is a Brother of ΑΦΑ, a Wolverine Alum, and Emory MBA Alum. Before full-time crypto-life, Robby worked at Goldman Sachs, Teach for America, and Cisco Systems. He commonly writes about crypto-economics and blockchain technology with a social impact focus. Find out more about my projects in the social sector @ http://robtg4.co/