5 lessons for social entrepreneurs on how to change the system

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship manages the largest network of late-stage social entrepreneurs in the world. Yet when you talk to most entrepreneurs in our community, they describe their impact as a “drop in the ocean”. They say things such as: “I’m not even 5% of the way to where I want to be”.

For a field long obsessed by the holy grail of organizational scale, the social entrepreneurship sector is coming to terms with the limits of incremental growth. The needs are just too large and too urgent, and the models for scaling that we have developed remain too narrow and take too long. Conventional scaling models borrowed from the private sector, such as branch replication and social franchising, seem woefully inadequate to meet the size of the need.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 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”, “systems entrepreneurship” and “transformative scale”, but many people still conflate 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.

How is a “systems change” approach or strategy distinct from a direct service model? What does the pathway to systems change look like and how do you get there? Clearly, there is huge appetite to learn from the successes and failures of other social entrepreneurs, and to understand what key decision points made all the difference to the outcome.
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