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5 challenges entrepreneurs face when building scale

Guest Contributor
22nd Dec 2015
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There is no dearth of awareness about the different social needs across India, and social entrepreneurs are conscious of this. They try to reach the maximum impact with limited resources. There are several ways social entrepreneurs achieve scale: these include strategic collaborations, franchise models, associations and open sourcing.

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The definition of scale is different for different social entrepreneurs. Some believe that a metric of scale is increased organisational size and structure, whereas some others believe that it is increase in impact irrespective of the organisational size. Then there are those social entrepreneurs who believe that scaling up is creating more leaders through distributed leadership.

As social entrepreneurs strive to increase their impact, they face several internal and external challenges. These can broadly be categorised in five ways, with corresponding possible solutions.

The challenge of depth versus width

Since impact is at the centre of the work for all social entrepreneurs, it is crucial that the quality of work is not compromised while scaling. Many social entrepreneurs define maintaining quality and impact of their work as one of the biggest challenges while trying to achieve scale.

Pranil Naik, Founder of LeapForWord, an organisation that works toward enhancing English language skills in children and youth from regional language backgrounds, shared his experience of tackling this challenge. In the beginning, Pranil taught students English himself, but this would not be possible if they wanted to achieve scale. The goal was that irrespective of who teaches, the results in student’s performance should not have a stark variant.

Through the years, he learned that any content which is expert-driven can be delivered without major variance, irrespective of who delivers it, by breaking it down into smaller units, codifying these smaller units, and creating a metric for each unit. Pranil overcame the challenge of diluting the quality of his work while scaling, through channelising all efforts in breaking down his English language curriculum into smaller, rule-based units that can be measured.

Finding the mental space

Social ventures are usually run with limited resources, and, due to this, many founders are occupied in day-to-day activities. This makes it difficult for them to have the mental space to think about where they want to take their organisation.

Jessica Mayberry is the Founder of Video Volunteers, an organisation that enables socially-excluded communities to show the world their reality, assert their rights and become drivers of change through videos. She says that she often finds inspiration while reading an interesting book, during conversations, or on travels to the field that help her think about where she would like Video Volunteers to be in the future.

Finding the right team and evolving as a leader

For social entrepreneurs to find the right mental space and think strategically, it is important that they hire the right team members to take charge and run daily operations. It is a challenge for organisations to find people who are committed to their vision.

Mukti Bosco, the Founder of Healing Fields Foundation, an organisation that works towards making healthcare affordable and accessible, says that scaling down expectations while scaling up is very important, because perfection is different for each person. Mukti said that delegation is key, but the challenge is to find the right people. She learned to trust herself and others to make the right decisions so that she could move out of day-to-day activities and move on to working on partnerships, fundraising and other strategic roles.

Apart from finding the right team and delegating, many social entrepreneurs say that they have had to mature as leaders due to scaling of the organisation, and have started doing things differently as communication becomes more focussed on the big picture and they need to learn how to become better managers to reduce inefficiencies in the organisation.

Constrained expansion efforts due to lack of funds

Unavailability of funds is a major challenge for organisations to scale. Scaling a social venture comes with several additional costs such as hiring a new team, introducing new distribution chain, monitoring and evaluation, and the like. Many organisations are trying to move to models that are less donor-dependent as well, but the challenge is that in most cases, the ability of their primary customer segments to pay is low, and hence social entrepreneurs find it difficult to make sufficient profits to sustain operations.

Pranil says that one of his aims is to make LeapForWord sustainable at scale, but certainly not at the cost of effectiveness. He says that if he were to choose between scale and effectiveness, he would choose effectiveness. But, if there had to be a choice between scale and donor independence, he would go for scale.

High costs in last-mile connectivity due to lack of infrastructure and other geographical constraints

As the majority of the Indian population lives in rural areas which are often only accessible through poor roads, reaching out and establishing last-mile connectivity is resource-intensive and hence many organisations find it unprofitable.

India is such a diverse country that no solution is exactly replicable in all geographies. Only an abstraction of it is useful and there is always a need to customise solutions to the local context.

Some geographies are more inviting to social entrepreneurs than others. This can play a role in the expansion plan. For example, in 1995, when social entrepreneur Gopi Gopalakrishnan wanted to expand the work of Janani, a non-profit organisation that provides family planning and comprehensive abortion care service, they decided to go to the unexplored State of Bihar. He says that the Bihar government was so inviting because this was a time that the State wasn’t doing well and they were very open to trying new things. Gopi says if he had gone to Maharashtra or Karnataka at that point, the programme might have not been as successful.

As challenges come up for social entrepreneurs, they work to understand the best strategies that will have the most impact. They learn to be self-aware as leaders and utilize the power of their networks to achieve the desired impact. The journey of social entrepreneurship opens up a number of internal as well as external challenges which the founders need to balance to achieve scale.

About the author:

Shevika works with leading social entrepreneurs and changemakers at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. She is also an organizer at Startup Weekend. Shevika is interested to learn ways in which technology can scale social impact. Connect with her on Twitter @sheviksm

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