About this Report
Every week we hear a different version of the same story from a social entrepreneur: “I have developed a proven education model and it makes a meaningful difference in at- risk children’s lives. Ten years on, we’re only serving 1,500 children a year. How am I supposed to reconcile the number of children we are reaching with the fact that tens of millions of children need these services in my country alone?” You can replace the word “education” with healthcare, sanitation, job training, housing or any number of other complex problems for which social entrepreneurs have created innovative approaches to solve. And you can add two or even three zeros on to the end of that direct beneficiary figure, yet the overall sentiment remains the same.
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship manages the largest late-stage network of social entrepreneurs in the world – including the trailblazers that a generation of business school students have read as case studies and looked up to as role models. In other words, the social enterprises in our network have achieved scale. By any objective standard, their numbers are staggering: VisionSpring has increased the productivity and incomes of more than 3.5 million poor people through the sale of glasses in Asia, Africa and Latin America, creating an economic impact estimated at $280 million. First Book has elevated the quality of educational materials for low-income children by distributing more than 160 million books and resources to schools and educational programmes across North America.
Yet when you talk to virtually any social entrepreneur in our community, they will describe their impact as a “drop in the ocean” and say things like: “I’m not even 5% of where I want to be.” They are proud of their achievements, and they have a right to be; their interventions have improved and, in some cases, radically transformed the lives of millions. Even so, it is hard sometimes to avoid the conflicting feelings so eloquently described by a Schwab Social Entrepreneur as “being responsible for an island of success in a sea of despair.”
For a sector that has long been obsessed with the holy grail of organizational scale, the social entrepreneurship sector is now coming to terms with the limits of incremental growth. The needs are just too large and urgent; the models for scaling we have developed thus far remain too narrow and simply take too long. Conventional scaling models borrowed from the private sector, such as branch replication, social franchising and open-source dissemination, seem woefully inadequate when aiming to create meaningful social change for entire populations.
A few forward-thinking funders, for their part, are also starting to grapple with many of these same questions. How can our funding strategy evolve beyond a portfolio of fragmented interventions? How can we make “big bets” so our philanthropic and investment dollars catalyse enduring change?
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, many highly successful social entrepreneurs who have achieved significant scale, along with the intermediary organizations and funders that support them, are starting to coalesce around the concept of “systems change.” It can go by different terms, including “equilibrium change” and “transformative scale,” but many people still con ate these concepts with the operational scale of single organizations. On the contrary, we believe that you can run a small organization and still change a system.
Since we are a community of practitioners offering actionable insight to other practitioners – “by social entrepreneurs for social entrepreneurs” is our motto – we would like to offer a practitioner definition of systems change coined by Martin Fisher, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of KickStart International, for readers of this report: “fundamentally, and on a large scale, changing the way a majority of relevant players solve a big social challenge such that a critical mass of people affected by that problem substantially benefit.” For more details on how we define this and other terms, please see here.
The objective of this research report is to help practitioners understand what systems change means in the context of social entrepreneurship, how it is distinct from direct service or “business-in-a-box” models and, most importantly, what it looks like in practice – not as lofty exhortations and abstract concepts, but as a set of concrete activities, processes, and leadership lessons. Our intent is to move beyond systems theories – which, while useful, can be difficult to apply in a practical context – and instead tell the stories of how these theories can be applied across a range of circumstances.
These stories follow six for-pro t and non-pro t social entrepreneurs in the Schwab Foundation network, working in education, health, consumer rights, land rights, rural development and the informal economy, as their strategies evolved beyond organizational scale – growing the reach of a prescriptive, organizationally designed solution to a problem – to systemic scale, with the goal of shifting the rules, norms and values that make up social systems.
Interviews with the case study participants examined the paths these organizations have taken to arrive at their current systems approach. They were asked: How do you define the system in which your organization operates? What changes are required to ensure that this system works better for the people that your organization serves, and how is your organization working to effect these changes? Who are your partners in this approach? How has this affected your strategies for leading and growing your organization?
This report is designed for any social entrepreneur or social sector leader who is looking for strategies and tools that can influence the broader system in which they operate. Ultimately, this report and the accompanying in-depth case studies provide an opportunity for social entrepreneurs, funders and policy-makers to begin sharing a common language around systems change and to generate momentum for more systems change strategies and approaches. The case studies have also been developed as a set of stand-alone teaching cases designed to be used in education programmes for social entrepreneurs.
We wish to thank the outstanding social entrepreneurs who gave their time and energy to this case research, opening their organizations and offering their extensive experience in making systems change happen. We would also like to acknowledge and extend our appreciation to Cynthia Schweer Rayner, Camilla Thorogood, and François Bonnici at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, who undertook the research and travelled many miles to visit and learn from the organizations pro led herein. Finally, we would like to recognize the visionary leadership of Precious Moloi-Motsepe, Deputy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Motsepe Foundation, whose generous support and enthusiastic commitment made this research possible.
Chairperson and Co-Founder of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship
Head, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship provides unparalleled platforms at the regional and global level to highlight and advance leading models of sustainable social innovation. It identifies a select community of social entrepreneurs and engages it in shaping global, regional and industry agendas that improve the state of the world in close collaboration with the other stakeholders of the World Economic Forum.