What can the social sector learn from Silicon Valley?


Dan Berelowitz


Silicon Valley is hardly the natural source of inspiration for those aspiring to do good. 

Once heralded a beacon of progress, it is now famed more for being the hub of a sinister assault against our values – from freedom to humanity.

Yet for the social sector to overlook Silicon Valley’s breath-taking revolution, would be to miss a useful lesson in how to create radically great social good.

This is the subject of an excellent new book- ‘Lean Impact’ – by Ann Mei Chang, a former Google executive, who became Chief Innovation Officer at USAID.

Chang argues that by embracing the model for innovation and acceleration behind the world’s top start-ups, the social sector can exponentially increase the impact of its time and money.

Scaling social innovation
I have long believed that charities and social enterprises need to adopt a business mindset to have a greater impact.

I founded my own non-profit consultancy, Spring Impact, to support the scale up of social innovations, out of frustration that many great projects and services do not reach as many people as they should.

Why? Many social organisations are great at starting up and proving a model, but lack the skills to scale. It is often the practical, operational stuff that is their undoing; determining the right model, challenges with implementation and delivery, and upskilling talent.

These problems are regularly faced by start-ups. It makes sense to examine the business solutions out there – despite the fact that, as Chang testifies, scaling social innovation is far harder than building an app.

Indeed, since 2016 we have partnered with the National Lottery Community Fund to run a Scale Accelerator– taking one of the tech world’s favourite tools to help charities and social enterprises to gain the strategic skills to scale.

Start-up thinking
Lean Impact was inspired by the classic entrepreneur’s bible – The Lean Startup by Eric Ries – famed for popularising the ‘customer-centred fast iteration and data driven approaches’ to which many start-ups attribute success.

Within her own book Chang outlines how to embed an agile innovation process – or what she calls ‘the long, hard slog that is required to take a promising invention and transform it into meaningful social impact’.

This rests upon three key principles that I really like, as they reflect so many of the concepts that we share with funders and social innovators looking to scale.

1. Think Big
Be audacious in the difference you aspire to make’, says Chang ‘basing your goals on the size of the real need in the world rather than what seems incrementally achievable.’

To change more lives – whether it tackling homelessness, criminal justice or food poverty – organisations need a strategy to tackle the true size of the problem they ultimately want to solve.

2. Start small
Chang’s second principle reflects a mistake that I often see mission-driven organisations making – trying to execute a big vision, in a big way, at the start. Too often, ambitious strategies for growth are not effectively implemented.

The solution is learning through iteration. As Chang explains, ‘Between a desire to help people who are suffering today and pressure from funders to hit delivery targets, interventions often scale too soon. Starting small and staying small makes it far easier to learn and adapt—setting you on a path to greater impact over time.’

3. Seek impact
Finally, a relentless focus on scaling impact is Chang’s third principle: ‘Whether due to excitement, attachment, or the requirements imposed by a funder, we can become wedded to our intervention, technology, or institution. To make the biggest impact, fall in love with the problem, not your solution.’

The risk otherwise is ‘mission drift’ as resources are ploughed into activities which might grow and sustain an organisation for its own merits, but don’t allow it to have longer lasting impact.

Silicon Valley might be a falling star, but a lot can still be learned from its audacious philosophy. Whether it is changing the world, or turning into a unicorn, social innovators and start-ups both dream big and can learn a lot from each other about scaling impact.

Dan Berelowitz is CEO & Co-founder of Spring Impact

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