We all dream of reaching our potential. Social entrepreneurs, who often see the mission of their organization as the embodiment of their own personal mission, perhaps know this better than most of us.

It is common to judge social enterprises by the scale of their reach or by how rapidly it has grown. But at what cost does this come to the social entrepreneur and the organization?

Last week, 25 social entrepreneurs from around the world gathered in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for the World Economic Forum on Latin America. Over the course of several days, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship gathered these entrepreneurs to discuss how leaders in the social enterprise sector grapple with this rarely discussed question. As expected, this question led to several other important questions. I share them below, as they will be valuable points of reflection for any aspiring leader in the social enterprise sector.

How do you avoid “mission drift” when growing your social enterprise and its impact?

Social entrepreneurs, by design and by choice, do well by doing good. By virtue of their success, they attract the attention of governments and investors, who want to be the wind behind the social enterprise`s sails. While this wind can often make the boat move faster and with less fuel, it can also take the boat slightly…or sometimes very…off-course.

In the rear-view mirror, we can see the critical inflection points of the “mission drift”. But in the moment, the drifts may seem small or the difference in priorities between the outside stakeholders and the management team may seem inconsequential. Yet, it is often these small differences in perspectives which play a significant role at key inflection points in the social enterprise`s growth. When your social enterprise is gaining steam, the fear of not reaching your potential and realizing your vision can be more powerful than the understanding that investors’ and partners’ interests and priorities are not fully aligned with yours.

It is short-sighted to assume the outside stakeholders’ wind will always blow the social enterprise in the same direction as its own mission. Having open conversations with all stakeholders at the early stages is important. Governance mechanisms, if designed and adapted appropriately to your organization`s needs, will help you navigate successfully through these decision and inflection points.

Why do we care so much about scale?

Many social entrepreneurs acknowledged that scale can be a superficial measure of success; it does not indicate the actual social impact delivered. The belief that a larger market penetration proves your business model is taken from the corporate sector. It speaks more to the public perception of impact than the actual impact. The understanding that social enterprises exist to solve the “big problems” in society also creates a bias toward “bigger is better”. Many social entrepreneurs comment that “throwing starfish” is a less efficient way of achieving transformational change.

What is clear is that we need a more effective measure of social impact that combines both the quantity (number of people affected) and quality (how deeply lives are transformed) of impact. In short, we care about scale because we haven’t yet figured out the right metrics to judge success in the social enterprise sector.

How do you take care of yourself when you expend most of your mental, emotional and physical energy taking care of everyone else?

Leaders who exhaust themselves trying to be everything to everyone are doomed to fall short of their potential. Taking care of yourself so you can then take care of others is common sense. Yet leaders in the social enterprise space so rarely incorporate this into their personal and professional lives. This question involves some self-exploration and reflection. It is something all aspiring public leaders should consider.

In sum, social enterprises and other mission-driven organizations offer the world unparalleled potential to create positive transformational change. At the same time, the leaders of these organizations face unparalleled challenges in managing the complex internal and external demands of creating transformational change. They must be self-aware enough to manage their own energy and their teams` bandwidth, they must be attuned and proactively address the competing demands and priorities of external stakeholders, and they must be honest with themselves and the world about the expectations and perceptions of impact.

 

 

Author: Abigail Noble, Head of Latin America and Africa, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

Additional resources:
On avoiding mission drift, please see the draft guidebook by the Taskforce on Governance of Social Enterprises

On taking care of yourself, HBR article Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time and HBSP book by Annie McKee and Richard Boyatzis on Resonant Leadership