Archive for the ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ Category

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.


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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.

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Once, when Ashoka Fellow Karen Tse, founder of International Bridges to Justice, was speaking in Singapore, she was asked, “Which quality have you had to develop the most during your journey as a social entrepreneur?” Karen paused, then replied, “radical self-affirmation.”
           Radical self-affirmation—Karen’s striking words express an idea we should all consider. For one who wants to make a better world, to be a changemaker, the right attitude is central to success.
            What is this attitude? I would say they are:
–          Give permission
–          Define yourself
–          Believe
            The first part is granting yourself permission to do big things—to confront a pressing human need, see a solution, and say I will allow conscience and intuition to inspire me.
            There is no ritual to giving oneself permission; no single solemn declaration. Instead it’s a habitual resolve to focus attention on what is right, constructive, effective, rewarding.
          During start up, reasons for not taking action will attack from every angle: you’ll starve; you’ll put your career at risk; you’re not an expert; the problem cannot be solved; you are led astray by idealism. Other objections are downright demoralizing, especially if such doubts come from within: Why do you think you can solve this when no one else has? What makes you so special that you can fix this? Can you handle the disapproval and conflict that will inevitably arise?
            Self permission means resolving to answer, ignore, or overcome these doubts, knowing they sprout from a fear of failure.
            Inaction is to be feared far more than failure, which is a patient teacher. So every changemaker should meditate on the question: have you given yourself permission to take on and accomplish something great?
            The second attitude is defining yourself.
            Following conscience can lead to great opportunities. The citizen sector is a wonderfully open space. The sector is growing, so there is today an exciting admixture of skill, background, and experience. Having the right attitude means defining who you are in this environment.
     Will you enter the field as an equal contributor to its great efforts and conversations? Even as a novice, could you imagine your part—perhaps sharing some existing skill or knowledge or insight?  At a summit of the world’s top practitioners, would you delight in discourse and dealmaking, or escape to a backbench seat?
            The third attitude is to believe in yourself and your dream.
            Belief that change is possible is the nucleus of social impact. Belief allows us to pose ambitious goals and expect to meet them. Consider two hypothetical vision statements in urban housing:
–          “To improve housing conditions in urban slums”
–          “To transform all slums into thriving, secure communities”
      The first vision hopes for mere improvement, not transformation. A path is assumed, along which only modest steps may be taken. By contrast, the second statement is full of optimism and offers an image of the future. Belief is the agent that enables the latter kind of vision.
            All changemakers want to have a pattern-changing impact on the real world. Just as real is the attitude you need to cultivate to do that. Habitually affirm to yourself that change is possible and that you have an important role to play. And grant yourself permission to seek great impact. Only you can do that – nobody else.

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Over the last 30 years, social entrepreneurship has evolved from an arcane concept recognized by a few thought leaders to a widespread phenomenon embraced by people worldwide.

            What distinguishes social entrepreneurs from other social leaders is their pursuit of pattern change. They seek to change the rules, systems, relationships, economics, incentives, and behaviors in order to uplift the lives of their specific clientele in society.

                Inspired and instructed by these social entrepreneurs, people from all walks of life are becoming changemakers themselves. Such a vibrant citizen sector will ensure that society distills its highest empathetic ethics into the real hard stuff of social change.

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