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How to get a social enterprise off the ground: Collaboration

   /   Oct 6th, 2011India, News

Two newly vaccinated children on India's national immunization day

So you’ve got the next Great Idea to solve a social or environmental problem; or the beginnings of the next Great Idea — where do you go from here? How do you manifest your idea into something tangible, an organization, enterprise or product?

In this series we follow a young social entrepreneur exploring these questions, hoping to set the groundwork for her own organization. We’ll track her progress as she takes part in a national immunization day on polio in India and consults experts and health workers on how best to incorporate mobile phones into the operation.  She saw a need: those who already had polio were seeking – and not finding – help. Her solution: develop a program that allows health workers to transmit basic information via mobile phone to doctors in nearby cities who would be able to offer free-of-cost corrective surgery.

Be humble.

That was the best piece of advice I’ve heard others give and been on the receiving end of it.  Humility is hard to feign.  And it’s easy to lose.  But how does this apply to the social enterprise space?

When I first started reading about social enterprise, about five years back, it was a term that was just beginning to circulate around universities and the NGO community.  Academics were still struggling to define it.  Just a handful of texts had been written about it in simple, engaging language for non-academic audiences.

That’s what was alluring about it -a few people, quietly toiling away, refining a model, tweaking the old one, testing out ideas without disclosure.

Today, though, there are countless organizations, incubators, institutions – all touting the benefits of social enterprise.  The fellowships, which were once practically unknown, are highly sought after now.  And even high schoolers are getting in on the act – early.

I’m amazed at the speed at which enterprises are set up, funded, and running these days.  This can be good news.  Indeed, we’re, perhaps, witnessing a change in our thoughts, our outlooks, and our understanding of enterprise.  But, then I also wonder, is it necessary to have so many organizations that often do the same thing?  Competition is good.  A marketplace can be helpful in distilling the effective and efficient from the not-so-effective.

But, in this incredibly globalized world of increased communication, can we not collaborate further?  Do we really need to set up a completely new infrastructure each time?

When I set out to start an organization that would assist polio patients in rural India, I too thought that we may need a new network, a new infrastructure, a new team.  But what I found was that there are already organizations doing good work.  And as usual, most of them could use more support and funding.  So, I decided to change my approach.  Rather than working on building a new network in the field, I decided to seek out partners.   We’ll build the website to crowdfund surgeries for those who are disabled but we’ll partner with organizations and individuals who are already doing this work – and doing it marvelously.

So, I had the chance to learn about the generosity of Dr. Mehta and Jaipur Foot.  I immediately thought – here’s a noted organization that’s received sizable grants but is still short on funding.  I meet individuals every day who are keen to help but unsure how to.  Why not connect the dots?   By building a site where we can crowdfund surgeries, we’ll be able to have a long-lasting impact on an individual’s life.  So small sums of money, instead of massive grants.  That might be an approach worth trying.

I was humbled by the work of another clinic in Calcutta – Mahavir Seva Sadan.  So, I reached out to them as well.  After all, they have been doing this for over 25 years and beautifully.  Again, building a partnership.

I realized that there are people who’ve been social entrepreneurs far before the term existed.  And I’m really just a student in the field.  They’ve been doing it consistently and quietly.  They’ve mastered their work.  And if you considered examples like Mahavir Seva Sadan, where those who receive the artificial limbs also contribute to the production of new ones, they’ve actually been redesigning the NGO model all these years.

So, I find myself humbled these days as I get to interact with these pioneers.  And I feel less inclined to get competitive.   After all, why did we start down this road?  To serve others, not our selves.

That means we don’t need to reinvent the wheel always.  The innovators are out there already; we can be the connecting dots, we can bring together enterprises through the mobile or the Web, we can help make the vast third sector simply more collaborative and effective – through partnership, not repetition.
Esha Chhabra’s blog is ReThink Social. She is looking for a web developer for her new SE; if you are interested or have a lead, please contact her.

7 Responses

  1. Well said. Our organization mentors artists and entreprenuers that are not in college towards a career goal. We partner with schools and programs to provide referrals. Other organization provide all kinds of technical assistance to our mentees while we focus on overcoming self-defeating behaviors and helping to build their network.

    Derrick Duplessy
    Executive Director
    Duplessy Foundation

    ‘Pursue your Purpose’

  2. [...] How to Get Social Enterprise Off the Ground: Collaboration [] 0 Comments [...]

  3. Esha,

    Firstly, thank you for telling us your story about how you learnt about social enterprises. It was such a great read.

    You really just summed up this topic so perfectly. As social enterprise owners, we truly do work in silos.

    And this lack of collaboration isn’t just in the social enterprise sector, it is highly visible in the for profit business world.

    What people fail to understand as you rightly said is that we basically cannot afford to waste time work against each other.

    We have values which we drive into the heart of our social enterprises. We have a vision which we want to see succeed and help make a huge difference.

    But none of that matters if we don’t collaborate.

    With the work I do, I would never EVER consider working alone. It’s just not the way I work, and I hope it’s a practice I can begin to encourage everyone I help to start doing.

  4. esha says:

    Thanks, Josh, for the kind of words. Best of luck with your writing! Nice to see the SE movement taking on so much steam back in the UK. You might find this event interesting: