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How to get a social enterprise off the ground: Keeping the momentum

   /   Jun 23rd, 2011India, News

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 traveling through India and 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 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.

I’m often asked why I bother to do something that pays little, or almost nothing, and requires me to go to the most unglamorous places of India, neighborhoods that even locals avoid.

It’s a fair question.  Who would want to travel from the rolling hills of California or the stately streets of London to the grim roads of UP? (Well, I did.  But that’s me.) This time around, though, I found that even local residents, those who live and work every day in the vicinity, avoid the congested neighborhoods of north Delhi, the rugged, pothole-ridden roads of UP, and the water-logged alleys of their small towns. It’s understandable.  If you can avoid, why bother?

But, oddly, it’s here that I find the most captivating stories – tales of individuals who have forgone their own fortunes to set up a school for the underprivileged, a doctor who goes beyond the basics to treat those who otherwise have no hope, a social worker who completes his tasks for polio during the week and then spends his weekends tackling girls’ education. These are individuals who too could avoid the alleys, the small towns, the congested corners of the city, the packed trains and buses.  They too could take an easier route.  But they don’t.

And it’s their stories that I love to hear, discover, and follow.

So, the next time, I’m asked that question: why bother?  I generally say, why not?

In fact, it’s their tales that push me to keep trying, keep applying for grants, keep asking for support, and many times, keep failing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I’ve started this volunteer work with the polio effort as a student is that even when you’re trying to do some good, you’ll face a lot of adversity.

I’ve written to countless grant-making bodies to see if we can garner support for a short film. I’ve got a production team in place; I’ve got a script; I’ve got agreement from the characters.  The answer: no.

I put together a photo exhibition in London of my shots from India at Citigroup’s offices.  I wrote to numerous individuals to attend the opening night; these are local academics, philanthropists, business leaders, and even those affiliated with Rotary.  The answer: no, sorry. Polite but no.

I’ve pitched an endless number of stories to newspapers, magazines, journals that address this global health effort, hoping to share a perspective that comes from the ground, not from the cubicle.  The answer: thank you for thinking of us but sorry we’ll pass.  Simply put, no.

It’s amazing how many no’s we social entrepreneurs get.  And yet, strangely, we keep doing it.   I suppose that’s why we’re referred to as “unreasonable people.”

But, I recently spent time in one of these polio-afflicted towns and when I asked about polio corrective surgery, I got a loud yes.  Yes, there’s a need for it.  Yes, we have a list already in place of people who need it.  Yes, we want to help build a project around this.  Yes, yes, yes.

And there’s my answer – there’s a need.

So, I gathered my things from that town and returned home and went to some friends and said, how do I start a 501c3?  I told them there’s a need for surgeries and I think we can create a network of people who can bring these polio patients from the rural areas to the city, getting them the treatment they need.  It’s the best way to develop a model and hone it before we consider making it a for-profit social enterprise.  Plus, it’s the best way for us to show that to all those naysayers – there is a need.

How do I do it?

And soon enough I had a meeting set up with someone who’d set up a non-profit herself and who had the legal expertise to guide me.  She is a friend of a friend.  It wasn’t one of those formal institutions created for development that helped get it off the ground.  Rather it was through a circle of friends, a small group of people, eager to help.

And, sometimes, that’s all you need – a group of people, who don’t say, “why bother,” but “why not?”

One Response

  1. duskyblogger says:

    Great article! Facing similar barriers, but will persevere. Goodluck with your project.