Delivering New Solutions to Global Problems

Imagine that you are a mother living in a village in rural Gambia. At least one of your eight children will probably die before reaching the age of five. It doesn't matter that there are vaccines or treatments for the disease that will take your child -- measles, hepatitis, diarrhea, or perhaps HIV. What you know is that it's a ten-kilometer walk to the health clinic. When you arrive, you're likely to find a sign saying the nurse couldn't get there that day.

Andrea and Barry Coleman, stars in the world of motorcycle racing, saw the problem when they went to Africa to support the work of children's charities. It wasn't lack of medicine or health care workers. Rather, what was missing were the parts, mechanics, and maintenance for vehicles taking workers and supplies to villages and clinics. The couple wept over wasted vehicles rusting behind health-ministry offices, then returned home and mortgaged their house to found Riders for Health, a reliable, scalable vehicle-maintenance system for health care delivery.

The story of Riders for Health is a story of social entrepreneurship. An opportunity, in the guise of an apparently intractable problem, attracted the attention of individuals of exceptional creativity, drive, and commitment, who brought about large-scale change by disrupting conventional wisdom and mobilizing a broad range of actors to deliver results. Similarly, large development agencies spent decades making loans to small businesses in an effort to combat poverty, with mixed results. Microfinance only took off, however, when a social entrepreneur named Muhammad Yunus figured out that lending very small sums directly to impoverished Bangladeshi villagers could help lift entire families out of poverty. Years later, social entrepreneurs such as Jordan Kassalow of VisionSpring and Roshaneh Zafar of Kashf built on the microfinance model by using it to deliver other social goods, including eyeglasses, family counseling, and reproductive health care.

Innovators like these have long been part of the human-development landscape. Florence Nightingale revolutionized nursing in the 1800s. The Grameen Bank is nearly 40 years old. Today, conversations about the world's most vexing problems increasingly involve social entrepreneurs. That's because delivering results and impact requires new ways of framing problems, as well as the effective engagement of talent and resources from many disciplines. Social entrepreneurs are uniquely qualified for these tasks.

At the Skoll Foundation, we have spent more than a decade investing in social entrepreneurs who are disciplined in a particular way. We seek partners who are not just businesslike but who are also accountable both to their investors and to the populations they serve. Camfed, for example, is a nonprofit that provides educational opportunities to African girls living in poverty; it designed a governance model to ensure that its commitment to every child in its programs is fulfilled for as long as it takes to accompany that child as far as she can go.

We also look for leaders who are driven to deliver impact. One such leader is Rupert Howes, who took the helm of the Marine Stewardship Council at a time when it wasn't delivering on its promise. By building partnerships with leading players in the seafood industry, Howes succeeded in persuading major fisheries to adopt and be certified for sustainable fishing practices. His work is one of many causes for celebration and hope in the world of social entrepreneurship. And there are other bright spots. Last year, for example, Landesa brought more than 3.4 million families secure rights to their land. Ceres helped convince 1,300 US companies to report their climate risk exposure. Half the Sky's model for child-welfare institutions became China's national standard.

Disruption, discipline, and drive are defining characteristics of social entrepreneurship. So is the ability to mobilize assets across an entire society. We look for master collaborators who can deploy advanced technology, such as Benetech's secure Web application for documenting human-rights abuses. Other solutions are as timeless as music. In Paraguay, a distinguished conductor and social entrepreneur named Luis Szarán formed an organization called Sonidos de la Tierra (Sounds of the Earth), dedicated to supporting music education and performance across the country. Sonidos de la Tierra has inspired new ways of thinking about development challenges, for example, by forming an orchestra of slum children who play instruments crafted from rubbish in the landfill where they work.

Socially entrepreneurial organizations are often lean but always high touch. They build networks of trust that inspire and support local leaders, first to transform their local communities and then to build broader social movements. In this way, One Acre Fund helps subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa by providing seeds, fertilizers, and technical assistance to groups of farmers (often women) who are interested in working together to boost their incomes.

One Acre Fund provides agricultural education, capital, environmentally sensitive planting materials and fertilizer, and market-access services. The organization has found that the farmers who participate in its programs tend to become evangelists who pass on their new skills to many other farmers. Similarly, mothers2mothers teaches new mothers living with HIV how to prevent transmission to their children. It then recruits them as "mentor mothers" to pass the change along, in the hope of setting off a snowball effect and eventually eliminating mother-to-child transmission.

Although we don't yet know which of these organizations will have the kind of transformative impact that Muhammad Yunus and Florence Nightingale achieved, we have already learned much from their efforts. We hope this book will inspire and instruct with its diversity of experiences, perspectives, and opinions. We look forward to accompanying social entrepreneurs and other innovators on their journeys toward delivering impact and to continuing the conversation at Skoll World Forums in the decades to come.

This blog was originally published on

This blog is part of our ongoing coverage of the 2013 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. Cisco is the official technology sponsor of the forum.

(Copyright (c) 2013 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission)