This Social Entrepreneur Says Making Mistakes Is His Superpower

CollectiveSun's Lee Barken Finances Nonprofit Solar Projects and Says "Action Cures Fear"

  
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Devin: Well, Lee, what is your superpower?

Lee: So I love that you ask people this question. I'm going to say my superpower is making mistakes, and I say that a little bit tongue in cheek because I really want to share for your viewers that everybody has a superpower and everybody can join me in making mistakes and feel empowered. You know that they can also do these things because we're all very capable of making mistakes. The fun part, I think for us is is the learning from those mistakes and not repeating those mistakes. And, you know, using them in ways to advance. But it really starts with giving yourself permission, you know, in creating cultures and environments where you have permission to fail.

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Lee Barken helped launch CollectiveSun with the idea of crowdfunding solar power projects for nonprofits. Over the years, he saw crowdfunding work for some along the way he’s discovered more efficient sources of capital to continue his mission helping nonprofits save money on their energy costs and reduce their environmental footprint.

Four years ago, CollectiveSun began offering “Solar Power Agreements” that operate something like more traditional power purchase agreements. Designed to operate financially much like a conventional loan, the structure preserves tax incentives that nonprofits can’t use, allowing the economic benefits to flow through to the nonprofit.

Part of the trick has been cultivating a roster of investors willing to take risks backing nonprofits. Traditional banks often shy away from nonprofits for a variety of reasons, including the banker’s discomfort with nonprofit business models and the headline risk associated with a bank foreclosing on the local boys and girls club or YMCA.

With the economic models made possible by CollectiveSun’s innovative approach, paired with falling solar costs, Lee, the Chief Community Officer, says the pitch is now pretty simple. Generally, he can save nonprofits money.

One of his favorite examples is finding some pastors who, together with their congregations, aren’t particularly concerned about climate change, saying something like, “We don't subscribe to that point of view. But if you can help me save money on my utility bills, I don't care if it's golden toilets.”

In these cases, one typical reaction from younger members of the congregation is that they are excited to see the solar panels on the roof and the church taking action on climate change, in effect, helping to bring the pastor into a new fold—people of faith who care about climate change.

When I congratulated Lee for doing so much good, he said, “We're enabling good and the good that's being done is with the nonprofits serving in their communities.”

Lee says that everyone has superpowers. His superpower, he says with a twinkle in his eye, is making mistakes. He notes that everyone makes mistakes so everyone can master his superpower. More thoughtfully, he adds, the real superpower is being able to learn from your mistakes.

How to Develop Learning From Your Mistakes As a Superpower

Lee is right. We all make mistakes. He’s also right about superpowers. We all have strengths we can use to make the world a better place. You can develop the ability to learn from your mistakes and make that a superpower.

Today, Lee can reflect with a smile that relates to the founding story of CollectiveSun. His premise was that everyone would align behind the best interests of a nonprofit that wanted to add solar. It hasn’t always been easy, but the challenge has led to some innovative approaches that now give CollectiveSun greater ability to help nonprofits.

Lee explains that the power of learning from mistakes comes from thinking of everything as an experiment. Marketers decades ago began thinking about A-B testing to compare the results of two similar ads for the same product to see which produced the best outcomes. Lee broadens that approach to thinking about most things he does to see what can be learned.

With this approach, he can enjoy the process. By not committing his ego to an effort, what happens is just a lesson he and the team can employ to improve their processes.

This is a fairly significant mindset shift. Lee says, he recognizes that fear is the stumbling block to risk-taking. He says, “Action cures fear.” He adds that it is wise to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Often, when you answer that question, you realize that the outcomes associated with failure are affordable. The lesson learned is often greater in value than the cost. Charge ahead.

Using this approach, you can make learning from your mistakes a superpower that will enable you to do more good.

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