Last week, I attended two forums on social entrepreneurship: the World Skoll Forum and the Ashoka Globalizer. Though with slightly different focus, both were themed around the subject of scaling up social change. The World Skoll Forum was a general conference that covered a broad range of topics, while the Ashoka Globalizer was targeted at helping specific social entrepreneurs (Ashoka Fellows) scale their impact globally.

Many ideas were floated about the methods that social organisations can apply to increase their impact. Not surprisingly, a key message was that we exist in ecosystems and, often, the whole ecosystem is required to solve a social problem at scale. Thus, collaboration and networks are important for any social organization that seeks to make a meaningful difference to society.

Related to this, one of the concepts I found useful in the Ashoka Globalizer was that of a “smart network.” Many organisations, while they recognize the value of networks, put themselves at the centre of the network and focus on how they can leverage the network to grow the organization.

Instead, the smart network places the mission – not the organisation – at the centre of the network. The organisation is but one node in the network. Each node has its part to play in carrying out the mission, be it palliative care, alleviating poverty or rebuilding slums.

Dr. Cecily Saunders, founder of Christopher’s Hospice in London in 1967, was cited as an example of a social entrepreneur who effectively harnessed a smart network. Instead of seeking to grow Christopher’s, she spawned a movement on palliative care. Through her innovations on care for the sick and dying (of which Christopher’s provided a working example) as well as her teachings at the Yale School of Nursing and her many speeches, she changed attitudes and public policies in many countries on end-of-life care. She is widely recognized as the founder of the modern hospice movement. Today, some 35 countries have integrated palliative care or hospice care in their health systems.

The message here is that scaling impact is not the same as growing the organisation. Not all paths to scale impact require enlarging the organization. One Ashoka Fellow clearly got it when he said, “My idea is not to be a BINGO (Big International NGO) but to see how we can find and develop partners to change the world.”

This resonates with a previous piece I had written in SALT about how social organisations should seek extinction rather than growth for growth’s sake as is typical in the commercial world. This is because social organizations should be mission driven and when they have accomplished their missions, they are redundant.

One of the frequent rebuttals that I receive to the notion of organisational extinction as an end goal is that some social problems such as poverty will never be solved. My response has been that each organization (which is part of a larger network) should define a mission, aspirational as it may be, but which is within practical reach. 

The idea of a smart network reinforces this position. Each player in the network performs its role based on its strengths and capacity. At some point, a specific player may no longer be relevant to the broader network and movement. It’s then time for that player to become extinct. And that player could even be the one that started the movement. The social cause is not yet over, but the capabilities and contribution of that specific organization (though perhaps not the ambitions of its founder) is spent.

At the Skoll Forum, I was inspired by the story of Jenny Bowen, an American who adopted a Chinese orphan girl and then started the Half The Sky Foundation in China in 1998 with the mission of improving care for children in Chinese orphanages. After twelve years, the foundation had grown to a staff of 1,500 and ran five innovative programmes for providing nurturing family-like care in Chinese orphanages that has helped over 40,000 children.

However, through the network it has successfully developed with the Chinese government and orphanages, it is up-scaling its impact by downscaling its operations. From 2011, Half The Sky will no longer operate any of its programmes in the orphanages. Instead, in partnership with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, its methods will be the mandated national standard of care in China, and Half The Sky will only focus on training and mentoring child caregivers. In this way, it will scale up its impact from the 40,000 children to date to 211,000 more children by reaching out to every orphanage in China.  

We need more people in the social sector who think like Cecily Saunders and Jenny Bowen – leaders who are less focused on building personal empires but more focused on their mission and impact.


In some circles it has become politically acceptable to state that poverty cannot be eradicated in our lifetime: that the means are not available, that there is a lack of political will, or even that those who “can’t keep up” need to assume more responsibility for their own lives. Others are politically correct enough not to say any of this aloud, yet their actions (or lack thereof) expose them. Even the Millennium Development Goals call only for a halving of the proportion of people who suffer from hunger. In other words, the international community will consider itself successful if by 2015 “only” about 500 million people are left starving in the world (a target we do not look set to meet).

I would ask those who do not believe we can eradicate hunger to travel to the developing world — better yet, to travel to the slums of their own countries — and meet some of the close to one billion people who currently go hungry every day. Meet these people so that numbers become faces and faces receive names. After bearing witness to the suffering and even the deaths of these people, they might then find the means to make poverty history. It can be done; there is still enough food on this planet to feed all of us, it is how this food is allocated that needs changing.

In the meantime, while 50,000 people die from preventable causes daily, what we need is the universal will to make change. October 17 is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and this year the call is for Climate Justice to End Poverty. 

Because climate change causes drought, floods and other natural disasters that affect food production, it has become one of the greatest threats to reducing poverty, advancing global development and realizing human rights that the world has ever seen.

Two years ago, Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum estimated that 300,000 people had died of the results of climate change. It’s a good bet that close to all of these people were among the world’s poor and were least responsible for the climate chaos we find ourselves in.

The year 2010 looks to be the hottest ever recorded and predictions for the coming years are grim: warmer temperatures, less and more erratic rainfall and more extreme weather events. The list of what we can expect as a result of increased global warming is frightening: resource scarcities, unstable weather conditions and higher food prices. Most people living in the developed world, have so far been spared most of the more dangerous phenomena, but we are reaching a point in time when fewer of us will be able to escape climate change related ravages; we are, for example, already effected by higher food prices. 

Last Sunday during the world’s first ever Global Work Party on climate change, organised by a range of activist groups, including the tcktcktck campaign, 350.org, Greenpeace and the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, people in 188 countries took part in over 7,000 events meant to establish new habits that will help curb the carbon emissions that cause climate change. The Global Work Party was a cry to governments that people want action, that enough is enough. We will not sit idly by and watch as our planet and millions of the people who live on it are slowly destroyed because those in power would not make the changes necessary to curb catastrophic climate change and help eradicate poverty.

History teaches us that when decent people take risks and engage in struggle for principles, peacefully and courageously, pursuing civil disobedience where necessary, then those who occupy the instruments of power, whether in government or in the financial sectors, will listen and understand. Last weekend was a good first step, but it will take an unprecedented alliance of people from all walks of life to force fundamental changes in the institutions that are holding us back: from environmentalists, faith-based organizations, human rights activists, trade unions, educators and those on both the left and the right who have never considered how the natural world affects their lives. 

We must work in the places where the actions causing climate change can be reduced — in our own homes and workplaces as well as the rainforests of Brazil, Congo and Indonesia and the coal mines of West Virginia and Poland. We must direct much more of our resources to the developing world for training in how to adapt to the irreversible consequences of the climate change already under way.

I have seen people die from completely preventable causes and wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. By eradicating poverty and hunger, and vigorously addressing climate change, many such deaths may be prevented. Hopefully politicians will learn to act before it is too late.

In his new book, Hard Truths, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew warns that his country must adapt to climate change.

Sometimes today’s abnormal holds useful clues to tomorrow’s normal. Singapore is very far from normal, something that Lee Kuan Yew, the city-state’s prime minister from 1959 to 1990, is at pains to point out in his new book, Hard Truths. It’s one of the most gripping and personal accounts of the thrills and spills of politics that I have read.

Surrounded by countries that do not wish it well, and in competition with rising neighbours in Asia, Singapore’s future is far from guaranteed. One reason why the city-state is so keen on water recycling and desalination, for example, is that Malaysia has periodically threatened to cut off the critical water it supplies. As a result Singapore plans to be self-sufficient in water by 2061, when their agreement to draw water from Malaysia ends.

This propensity to think long is shot through Lee’s book. In one memorable section – and there are many – he recalls a visit to Boston in 1968, where he had an eco-epiphany. Like Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark, he noticed that that the trees and other vegetation in the city centre were a rich, verdant green. He asked why they weren’t as dusty and diseased as in Singapore? The answer: vehicle emissions were tightly controlled – something Lee promptly put into force back home.

Dismissed as “Disneyland with the death penalty” and as “an antiseptic island peopled by a passive citizenry and governed by paranoia”, Singapore demonstrates the power of triple bottom line strategy at the country level: economic competitiveness, social inclusion (up to a point) and a cleaner environment for all. It remains to be seen whether the People’s Action party (PAP), that has held power for over 50 years, survives Lee’s eventual death (he is still a cabinet member), but he aims to ensure his successors – perhaps seduced by consumerist lifestyles – do not forget how fragile the city-state’s success is.

While in the city last week, I spoke to hundreds of people in government, business and civil society, and found a growing interest in corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Although Lee is pessimistic about the likelihood of nation states getting a grip on the climate disaster he sees threatening the region, he is determined that Singapore adapts to climate change and develops new industrial clusters in areas like clean technology.

Their tiny country, Lee warns the rising generations of Singaporeans, “is like a chronometer. You drop it, you break it, it’s finished. Some countries, you get a second chance, you buy spare parts, you put it back again. I’m not sure we’ll ever get a second chance.”

And I’m not sure, if he’s right about climate change, whether by 2061 a huge number of Asians won’t find themselves more than inconvenienced in a Humpty Dumpty future. Our best hope: to win over cities, city-states and countries to the “one planet” way, before we lose our grip.

John Elkington blogs at Johnelkington.com, tweets at @volandia and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel. This post first appeared on The Guardian Sustainable Business.

The Macquarie Group Foundation that I chair celebrated its 25th anniversary recently. In celebration, I had reflected on philanthropy in Australia over the last two decades. I had also made some predictions for the future, which I will share again here. This is no tribute to my foresight: the harbingers of change are already evident.

Within a sector that will continue to become larger, I’d expect to see further developments in 3 key areas.

First, I anticipate that the increased capacity and scale of many economically-significant NFPs will see them evolve into true social enterprises. They will retain the vision that inspires their members, donors and volunteers but increasingly couch their benefits in terms of a blend of social and financial value. Already around 20,000 Australian community organisations trade to fulfil their public mission, reinvesting their surplus income (their ‘profit’) into improving their organisational capacity and scaling-up their activities.

Second, I expect to see new investment vehicles emerge to raise funds which will complement the donations of philanthropists. A contemporary challenge, which will be overcome in the near future, is building and accessing a capital market for social impact. Investors need to be able to make low-interest loans to or acquire equity in social businesses. The early signals are encouraging. The Commonwealth has recently announced a Social Enterprise Development Investment Fund and the WA government has budgeted for a Community Development Investment Fund. Both are intended to harness loan capital for community benefit.

The initiatives are intended to corral social impact investment from those who seek not only a modest financial return but an opportunity to do good. This is the bold business model underpinning GoodStart, which has emerged to manage around 600 of the ex-ABC Learning childcare centres. It’s dependent not on government grants and philanthropy but loans which offer lower than market returns. That’s just the beginning. Expect to hear in the near future of new vehicles such as social impact bonds or a social stock exchange.

Third, and in some ways most influential, the measurement of social and environmental impact will increasingly be incorporated into government measures of national well-being. The social costs (of externalities) and benefits (of community activity) will long before 2035 be fully integrated into measures of Australian economic income and growth. The extraordinary value of community engagement will be accounted for in our national statistics. The social economy, and the contribution which it makes to community well-being and civic engagement, will at long last be properly accounted.

Blog coordinator’s note: For info on the Centre for Socal Impact, please see http://www.csi.edu.au/.

 I got expelled at 15 when I did my first protest. It didn’t stop me.

My activist friends got killed. It didn’t stop me.

And I have been jailed. It didn’t stop me.

You don’t have to go through any of that to make a difference.

But to younger people involved in the fight for justice, I want to say, one thing is important – commitment.  It is a marathon, not a sprint.

It takes time to listen and understand people and their problems.

It takes time to build relationships.

It takes time to educate yourself, your supporters, your audience.

It takes time to gather the right resources.

It takes time to try out creative ideas.

It takes time to move from anger to peaceful nonviolence.

It takes time to heal from pains that result from the journey.

It takes time to make deep change.

The social and environmental movements need your time, your talent, your unique way of seeing problems and solutions.

If you want to see a different world, get involved and stick around a bit.

Good things sometimes take a little longer.

In my last blog post, I looked at the general question, “Should churches (or religious organizations) be designated as charities?” and concluded, for practicality reasons, in the affirmative, on the basis of history, and the widening (a long time ago) of the legal definition of charity from being of just helping the poor and needy to being for the community good.

In this blog post, assuming this conclusion, I would like to examine the specific case question: when should a church, or a religious organization for that matter, not qualify to be a charity?

First, the charity sector and the charity regulator have pretty much set out the standards and criteria which charities, once qualified, are expected to meet to continue to be designated as charities. These include good corporate governance practices, accountability to donors and other stakeholders, financial management, and staying true to their missions. There are enough of these rules and expectations, and most board members of charities will tell you that we do not need any more for charities to properly function.

All charities, whether religious-based or not, have to abide by these rules and standards. Errant charities can, and will be, dealt with. In this context, any discussion of which organization should not be charities should apply equally to religious and non-religious charities.

What is it then about religious charities that they provoke so much discussion on the question of religious organizations as charities?

 In my view, the reason lies with religious leaders and their link with divinity.

The leader of a regular nonprofit organization may very well be charming and popular with his people (staff, donors, beneficiaries, etc) but he is nevertheless a mortal who is expected to follow the rules. If he abuses his position, he can, and will, be taken to task, not just by the regulator but also by his own people and the public at large. Case in point is the old NKF where excesses of its management led to a public outcry and what has come to be known as the NKF saga.

A religious leader has a lot more going for him. He is often regarded as the earthly representative of God (or equivalent). He is less likely to be questioned by his flock that sees itself as being a part of a cause that is greater than the leader and the organization. The leader’s pronouncements on many matters can be near-absolute as they are deemed to have come from “above.” The prospect for abuse of such power in such situations can be high.

For charities, the upmost concern in the eyes of the public tends to be financial wrongdoing. The risk for financial abuse in the mainstream churches, however, tends to be generally low because of the selection, formation and code of conduct of their religious leaders. For example, in the Catholic Church, a priest is ordained only after an intensive period of scrutiny and formation of eight or more years, upon which he takes a vow of chastity, obedience and, sometimes, poverty. He is expected to live less than modestly. In Singapore, Catholic priests are paid $500 per month although their board and lodgings are provided by the Church. I only know this because I am Catholic (making my declaration here) but I reckon the situation is similar for the other mainstream (Anglican, Methodist, etc) churches. That is not to say that there is no abuse, but hopefully these churches have also built into their internal structures and systems, the mechanisms to prevent, surface and deal with such occurrences.

On the other hand, some “new age” churches and religious organizations may not have the same set of entry requirements, formation process, lifestyle expectations and controls in their selection of the leaders. Indeed, in some cases, leaders emerge by virtue of their charisma and ability to win followers who believe that their leaders’ messages are divinely inspired. Should such a charismatic leader have a flawed character, he (or she) can do untold damage. In extreme cases, these will be classified as cults, which are, of course, banned in Singapore, but not some other countries.

Coming back to the question of charitable organizations, the public expects charity leaders to function with financial prudence, if not, frugality. They would generally take a dim view of charity leaders who reward themselves handsomely from the largesse of their followers and donors, and live extravagant lifestyles. On the other hand, it is unlikely for the mesmerized followers of religious leaders to either notice or reject such extravagance.

This then is the conundrum for regulators and those outside looking in: What do they do about any perceived financial improprieties when scrutiny, objections and even information are not forthcoming from the inside?

There is no easy answer. What I think may be best is greater scrutiny and rules requiring greater transparency and accountability of those religious (and non-religious) organizations where the risk of abuse is higher.

This, however, does not appear to be the current approach of the charity regulator. Currently, charity regulations are skewed by the size of the charities: the bigger the charities are, the more controls and scrutiny are needed. Yet, it is in the smaller organizations (which are able to keep under the regulator’s radar) where there is often more room for manipulation.

In monitoring charities and in the rules requiring transparency and accountability, the basis should be the risk profiles of the organizations. Size count, but that should not be all. There are also other risk factors such as the governance structure and the people involved. And of course, we should also take into account the particular nature of the sector and its players. Yes, the religious sector has the peculiarity with respect to the power of its leaders. But when we get to the other sectors, there are elements of each which will also affect their risk profiles.

There’s a housing boom in my neighborhood in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and throughout Asia. Every morning a blue truck rolls down the street, bounces to a halt in a lot outside my window, and delivers a dozen construction workers, rain or shine. It seems that no matter where you are, some nearby house is going up, coming down, or changing its look.

Housing is a major piece of Asia’s socio-economic puzzle. It’s an industry that employs vast numbers of people. It’s a huge challenge in city planning. To Asia’s growing population of low-income home buyers, housing represents many things: opportunities, an asset, and an achievement. Housing is also one nexus of the citizen sector, where social entrepreneurs are changing the very rules of the puzzle itself.

Here are 3 examples:

WorkersRajiv Khandelwal is an inspiring social entrepreneur in India, a vast land with 100 million rural, seasonal migrant workers.  He founded Aajeevika Bureau to help workers from rural Rajasthan and Gujarat to construction sites in distant towns.  His clients are not only seeking opportunities in the city, but adapting to some major change in their previous way of life, especially the steady agricultural decline. Rajiv’s take is straightforward: rather than try to prevent seasonal migration—which doesn’t work—  India should help its migrants thrive.

Cities – As houses go up and cities expand, urban annoyances can mushroom into major problems in city life. Noise pollution is one example.  Sumaira Abdulali is a courageous citizen of Mumbai who is putting together India’s first citizen-led effort to curb noise pollution. Her Awaaz Foundation is bringing to the forefront the issue of noise control in city planning—controlling the noise emitted by the booming cranes and shovels.

New Rules – The housing boom offers an avenue for Asia’s poor to own decent housing, but the barriers to ownership must be removed. This is the goal of Ashoka’s own Housing for All program, which lines up commercial deals to provide goods and services, capital and financing, and marketing for a very low income housing market, typically people working in the informal sector such as market vendors and rickshaw drivers.  Ashoka’s program is demonstrating that such deals can work, by bringing together the right lenders, builders, and social entrepreneurs.