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The Grave Mistake Many Social Entrepreneurs Make, and How to Avoid It The Grave Mistake Many Social Entrepreneurs Make, and How to Avoid It
Business

The Grave Mistake Many Social Entrepreneurs Make, and How to Avoid It

by James Thompson, Ian MacMillan

June 25, 2013

 
“No, it must be mobile,” said the prospective entrepreneur, looking away.
 
We were standing in a field with a would-be fish farmer in Africa a few years ago, and he was refusing an offer to pilot a small fish farming operation. We had been asked by a local entrepreneur, our host, to help design a fish production system that would produce relatively low-cost protein and create many small-scale production opportunities for interested entrepreneurs in the area.
 
Somewhat perplexed, our host asked why a less efficient mobile option was a must-have, rather than the much more reliable production system already designed to be built as concrete ponds and pumps embedded in the ground. The prospective entrepreneur looked at us and said, “If I do all the work to start the farm, and I succeed, and then the chief decides that he wants the fish farm now that it is up and running, he will simply take it over. If it is a mobile system—I can leave with it during the night and put it up elsewhere.”
 
With that, the entire project proposal needed to be reconfigured. In a nutshell, this early conversation with a key stakeholder gave us insight into a critical contextual consideration.
 
Let’s consider another well-known example. In the early 1990s, it became clear to many Western NGOs and governments that the condoms they were distributing in African nations were not being used. The conventional wisdom in the West was that the populations in these nations were in denial, or simply being fatalistic by choosing not to use condoms. But Susan Watkins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, thought there had to be more to the story.
 
She followed a group of women in Malawi for a number of years to better understand their views of HIV/AIDS and condom use, documenting conversations they had with one another, whether at the local water source or in small groups in the fields or the village. She found a very active population of women who were keenly aware of the ravages of AIDS. But the Western panacea of “give them condoms” ignored deeply ingrained and complex social norms. It ignored the fact that many women wanted to have children and many were afraid their husbands would leave or evict them if forced to use condoms.
 
This kind of cultural naïveté, and perhaps even arrogance, often leads social entrepreneurs to make a grave mistake: They insist upon offering people in need what they want to give without fully considering what the intended beneficiaries want. And then they are (often expensively) disappointed when people do not readily accept what is offered.
 
Over the past 13 years, we have worked with social enterprises in the United States and Africa to help them successfully launch their organizations. Many social entrepreneurs seek to tackle social problems by creating a revenue-generating solution. They want to create something that helps people and is self-sustaining. We have seen wonderful successes, and we have seen some fail to launch or sustain themselves. In our work, we have learned that you need to test your assumptions early and often—and be willing to accept and adapt to what you learn about the recipients.
 
If you find yourself wanting to join, or provide funding for or help raise funds for, a proposed social enterprise, do yourself the favor of pushing for satisfactory answers to four critical questions:
  • What is the social problem I wish to address, and am I confident of its root cause?
  • What is my solution, and is there evidence that it will work?
  • What will the beneficiaries of my offering have to do differently for my proposed solution to work? In other words, how must they change their behavior to benefit?
  • What evidence do I have that they will be motivated by the offering to change their behavior?
In our experience, many would-be social entrepreneurs fail to ask the last two questions. They, therefore, fail to create a revenue-generating solution that will work. When that happens, at one end of the spectrum, you risk losing the entire initial investment, which could have gone toward truly making a difference; at the other end, you risk running out of funds and having to pull out after you have created dependency.
 
To understand if your proposed solution will help or not, do the due diligence one needs to do for any startup:
  • Pick a promising “seed segment” of target beneficiaries, which is likely to respond quickly to your offer and expand to others after your initial traction
  • Think about what the most competitive alternative is for the beneficiaries and why and how your offering will be superior
  • List all the things a beneficiary will have to do to experience the benefit (including things like getting to the place where the benefit is delivered)
  • Think about all the things you may have to do (like training people)
Failure to pay attention to the whole experience can cause you to squander precious resources on something that just does not work. With so few funds available to address critical need throughout the world, social entrepreneurs cannot afford to ignore the voices, needs, and experiences of those they hope to serve.
 
We know this is hard advice to follow; when you're passionate about something, you feed off the adrenaline and want to dive in head first. But we have learned that taking a few due diligence steps beforehand greatly increases your chances of success.
 
Lest you think we are letting ourselves off the hook, check out our website, where you can critique and road test our own social enterprise—our book, The Social Entrepreneur’s Playbook. After all our advice, did you think we'd launch a book without letting our core audience give us feedback first?
 

 
Chart image via Shutterstock
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