So Where’s the Proof Social Entrepreneurship Works?

December 3, 2009

In fact, there’s a good deal of compelling evidence—beyond default references to Muhammad Yunus and microfinance—that social entrepreneurs are producing results at scale.
Notice my language here. I’ve intentionally coupled “results” and “scale” rather than using the ubiquitous “going to scale” phrase, which suggests, to me anyway, that scale is more about an organization’s size than its impact. For the Skoll Foundation, it’s all about impact. Of course, to the degree organizational capacity fuels impact or achieves economies in driving order-of-magnitude results, a beefier organization may be entirely justifiable. But let’s be clear that what we’re after is that social ROI.
A couple of examples of what results at scale look like. International Development Enterprises (India), founded and led by Amitabha Sadangi, has reached more than 1 million small holder farmers with its treadle pumps and customizable KB Drip irrigation units, helping its clients turn from subsistence to income generating production. In less than 20 years, IDEI’s work has resulted in more than $1 billion in new wealth generated, with that wealth translating into significant increases in health, education, and dignity for rural producers. But the story, and the data, get even better when one factors in India’s depleted groundwater supply and growing desertification. IDEI’s data demonstrates that its products are 50-70% more efficient in their use of increasingly scarce water, while boosting crop yields by 50%. In effect, IDEI is doing for poor rural producers what Grameen did for poor borrowers, literally design building the field of micro-irrigation. With data like this, is there any wonder why the Gates Foundation invested $27 million in IDEI so that the organization could do in Africa what it had proven worked in India?
Partners in Health, cofounded by Paul Farmer, Thomas White, and Todd McCormack in 1987, proved that it was possible to stop an epidemic outbreak of multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in the shantytowns of northern Lima with its community-based treatment model; moreover, PIH was able to achieve “one of the highest cure rates for MDR-TB ever reported, an astonishing 83%.” Armed with this evidence, PIH challenged public health orthodoxy, which considered treatment of MDR-TB in impoverished communities “impractical and unaffordable,” even though the disease kills more than 2 million a year. By 2006, 10 years later, the WHO and others involved in the fight against TB, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, released new guidelines sanctioning treatment of MDR-TB in poor communities, effectively adopting the PIH model. The new guidelines were accompanied by a plan “to increase the number of MDR-TB patients receiving treatment worldwide from 16,000 in 2006 to 800,000 in 2016.”
Just two examples—among many others I could cite—of what impact at scale looks like, with metrics to prove that social value is indeed being delivered, and that social change—significant, meaningful, systems change—is being advanced.

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