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.