From Hunter-Gathering To Modern Farming: Taking Social Entrepreneurship To Scale

Published in Skoll World Forum and Forbes, Ron Boehm shares his views on scaling up social entrepreneurship.

We get it.  Social entrepreneurs develop bold and innovative new solutions to social and environmental issues.  These entrepreneurs, using creative and sustainable approaches, pick up where philanthropists and governments have historically fallen short.   Over time, these pioneers may be our only hope for success in dealing with our toughest global problems.   Thousands of social entrepreneurs have left or avoided the comforts of the corporate world, and are dedicating themselves to developing and testing new models.  They have demonstrated potential for great impact – that is, if their organization can scale up, and/or if many others adopt and replicate their model. Society has celebrated and supported over three thousand social entrepreneurs  (Ashoka,  Skoll, and other Fellows) in the past thirty years.  We share ideas and inspirations at conferences and in the media, then hope that someone is sufficiently inspired to do the very difficult task of learning the model and trying to replicate it. The result: few projects have been able to scale up significantly or been systematically replicated.

Social entrepreneurship remains at the hunter-gatherer stage of development.  Just as pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers didn’t optimize food production, we have not optimized the means of positively changing desired social and environmental problems. We need to move to the agricultural stage of social entrepreneurship in order for large scale change to occur.  We need to expand what is already demonstrated as working.  Social entrepreneurs have demonstrated what is possible, acceptable, affordable, and sustainable.  It’s time for big goals, and it’s time for innovative funders, supporters, educators, and system developers to step up their game. Pre-agricultural peoples found useful plants in random locations, just as social entrepreneurs arise randomly throughout our societies.

Harvesting from more than a single plant meant locating another, similar, plant.  We do much the same.  We provide advice and funds to known social entrepreneurs, hoping that they can increase their impact, and then hoping that another entrepreneur springs up somewhere else to effectively deal with the same issue. Hunter-gatherers may not have understood that planting seeds in good soil and light with sufficient water could increase the amount of harvestable food.  We, at least, know that replicating successful models can increase the desired impact.  So it is a bit surprising that we don’t have massive efforts underway by foundations, philanthropists, social investors, and infrastructure organizations to replicate successful projects. We can learn from how civilization added farming to hunting and gathering.  The jump involved learning, decisions and deliberate action on multiple fronts:

  • Selection. This is a “better” plant that this one, let’s use the seeds of that plant.
  • Location. Food closer to the people is easier to care for and harvest, so the necessary plants were planted in fields closer to the village.
  • Customization and adaptation. Over time, farmers tracked results, and learned that plant rotation, soil suitability, and the amount of water and shade led to different results, and they adjusted accordingly for local conditions to meet their food objectives.
  • Scale. How many people are there and how many plants support how many people for how long?  This led to new learning – the number of plants needed, spacing, crop rotation, appropriate watering and nutrients, pest control, and so on.  Specialists and new livelihood models (businesses) emerged as this knowledge grew.

This isn’t a bad approach to scaling social impact.  We could take those great seeds (models), bring them into a field close to our village (select places where the soil is fertile and the need is great), and prepare the soil, plant and nurture seeds, and improve growing conditions  (provide the right kind of funding, business support, and mentoring).  Then, study the process of farming (study how to scale) to improve and share what works where. If we want to accelerate progress on our global issues, we need to change our thinking from the hunter-gatherer mindset to the agricultural mindset:

  • Selection. Find the best programs, evaluate them for widespread acceptance, effectiveness, affordability, and sustainability.
  • Location. Find locations that are conducive to high impact for large numbers of people, find the more supportive and collaborative governments where necessary policies and infrastructure may already exist, and utilize these advantages to quickly establish multiple programs around these countries.
  • Customization and adaptation. Study and react to differences in societies and cultures, political climates, and other identifiable factors
  • Scale. Set aggressive goals for replication of best practices; recruit and train replicator teams.

Widespread intent to develop the agricultural model of solving social and environmental issues is the first accelerator, requiring serious consideration and discussion in foundations, entrepreneurial organizations, non-profits, and government offices. We need to have commitments from multiple organizations and practitioners that for selected issues (eg, clean water, energy, food, economic opportunity, human rights, disease control, etc,), they would study what works in practice, what doesn’t work, and why.  Then, they would create effective best practice models and replicate them. For the development of best practices models, it will be faster and more cost effective to bring together the best operators, their funders, and supporters than to contract with consultants to study the same organizations’ practices and report back their recommendations. The varied experience of these participants, interacting with one another and exploring similarities and differences together, can more quickly hone in on what is most likely to work than can the more linear research done by consultants.  These participants are usually scattered around the globe, so in order to meet frequently enough, we need to assemble the team members virtually.  Fortunately, this is not expensive; with easily available technology well facilitated, it can be done without incurring high travel costs.

The next accelerator is a strong commitment to share information and to collaborate.  Once programs are implemented, fast wins on fertile ground will speed progress for the development of programs in more difficult locations. Upon the establishment of implementation plans, qualified teams would be recruited to carry out the replication plans in communities of need.  Other organizations, aware of the plans, would identify and build common support structures.  These supports will significantly increase the probability that a replication team can create a sustainable social enterprise and reach its full potential. Results will also be accelerated by selecting entrepreneurial teams (rather than single entrepreneurs) and simultaneously training multiple teams.  Trained teams following a vetted, best practices action plan will lead to more rapid set up and traction for new enterprises.

For scale, we could set goals to replicate best practice action plans fifty or a hundred fold, and then work backwards on how to make this possible. What would it take to reach 50 countries? Or 100 million people?  A billion?  Let’s see what opportunities exist to create leverage when we are talking about such scale. Encouragement and celebration of great social entrepreneurs should continue.  But we can add concrete steps to solve global challenges with widespread and extensive replication of successful programs.

The next stage of the journey can happen with the right models, strong intent, and committed collaboration. Many hunters and gatherers, after all, enjoyed the fruits, vegetables and grains produced by the farmers who turned their early exploration into bountiful harvests.

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