Want to have social impact? Think of icebergs!

Laura Haverkamp & Odin Mühlenbein, partners at Ashoka Germany, a global network for social entrepreneurship, about creating change in the world

Something is in the air: According to the most recent Start-Up Monitor, about 40% of the participants (fully) agree that their ventures are rooted in the field of social entrepreneurship. Germany’s Green Startup Monitor finds that about one-third of newly founded startups count themselves as part of the „Green Economy“. And the German bank KfW estimated the number of initiatives and startups in the field of social entrepreneurship already in 2017 at around 108,000! All of these initiatives evolve around one thing: purpose. Social and ecological impact. Changing the world for the better. 

We love this. Don’t you?

The most successful social innovators have created a better livelihood for thousands, sometimes millions of people. Their strategies have something in common; there is a clue in their impact models. One, that you can learn from when designing your own impact journey. 

Ever since we watched Kate and Leo approach the iceberg on the Titanic, we know a bit about these natural colossuses: Most of the magic (and power) is below the surface. The same is true for social issues. We see only the symptoms, but not their root causes. For example, we might see humans living on the streets, but we don't see the influences that led to that situation. 

When we design ventures around a purpose, we need to ask: What exactly do we want to change? Our initial impulse might be to help people in need directly. To stay in our example: give food, clothes, and shelter to the homeless. We currently spend most of our focus and resources on direct services. Donating a portion of income to a social cause is direct service as well. To be sure: Direct service is needed. We cannot ignore the homeless on the streets, the patients in hospitals, and struggling students in school. At the same time, direct services are not enough to overcome some of the most pressing issues of our time. 

Laura Haverkamp, partner at Ashoka Germany - photo by Christian Klant

The first lesson from successful social entrepreneurs: Move beyond the surface, tackle the root causes of social problems. When you design your impact journey, ask which social system you want to change and how. Want to keep trees from being cut? Create a market that makes the trees more valuable alive than dead (as does Nicolas Metro of Kinomé). Want to keep villages alive? Empower citizens to build their own local infrastructure (as does Heinz Frey of DORV). Want to improve the inclusion of people with disabilities? Create new jobs where so-called disabilities are an advantage (as does Frank Hoffman of discovering hands).

Lesson two: Think about leverage. You and your individual venture will most likely not solve a social issue by yourself. You need to give up control and collaborate with others to have an impact on a systems level. Open source your innovation, build alliances and strengthen the field that you are working in. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, found a way to empower everyone to contribute. Bas van Abel, the founder of Fair Phone, helped initiate the Fair Cobalt Alliance in order to motivate all key players in the field to change their sourcing practices together.

The universe is messy, deal with it,” says pioneering thinker Donella Meadows (Limits of Growth) – and social change calls for more than direct service solutions. Entrepreneurs are asking how they can change the world for the better. If you want to create real social change, move beyond direct service. Explore the iceberg instead.

Odin Mühlenbein, partner at Ashoka Germany - photo by Christian Klant

This social innovation insight is part of our series with the global network Ashoka – Innovators for the Public, through which we bring stories of social entrepreneurship and social innovation to you. Written by Laura Haverkamp and Odin Mühlenbein, partners at Ashoka Germany.