Scaling your social venture
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Paul Bloom’s latest book, Scaling Your Social Venture, provides a toolkit of lessons and best practices for scaling social entrepreneurship initiatives. In a well laid out, practical voice, Bloom introduces the SCALERS model, which stresses that successful scaling requires organizational strength in seven areas:

  • Staffing
  • Communicating
  • Alliance-Building
  • Lobbying
  • Earnings-generation
  • Replicating
  • Stimulating market forces

Throughout the book, Bloom points to examples of policy and programs that have succeeded as a result of strength in the seven areas. While the concept of scaling solutions to social problems has become a common theme in business communities, scaling is actually incredibly difficult. Bloom argues that scaling success is not an accident, and requires strategic planning and creativity that cannot be accomplished by merely providing capital for a venture.

Though both business and social entrepreneurs must scale their ideas in order to succeed, Bloom argues that social entrepreneurs face much bigger obstacles and are in greater need of new thinking about whether and how to scale.

In the preface of the book, Bloom states that the SCALERS model presented in his book was modified from earlier renditions. He states that new concepts and ideas were layered into the model presented in the book. In doing so, Bloom reminds the reader that the elements to successfully scale an innovation are dynamic and may continue to change as feedback from social entrepreneurs is gathered.

When should you scale a social entrepreneurial venture?

Social entrepreneurs must be able to test and evaluate the initiative that they are thinking of scaling. Assuming an organization has reasonable evidence that their model of change can work, an entrepreneur must then assess their human, social, political, financial, technological and natural-resource capital.

Before attempting to scale, an organization should have a high level of confidence that it can meet revenue targets and have a strong sense of the financial inflows and outflows created by the work they are trying to accomplish.

Bloom further introduces the importance of achieving success in an ecosystem of local conditions, while factoring in shifting trends in larger marketplaces. Ecosystems can include resource providers, rivals, and audience of any social venture. The ecosystem that a social entrepreneur operates within will change either through individual efforts or the influence of larger powerful external forces. Failure to fit well with the ecosystem’s changing nature is a recipe for failure at scaling.

What role does local government play?

Bloom also discusses the role of government in the context of an ecosystem that organizations must thrive in. Though social entrepreneurship is often seen as an alternative to government solutions for social problems, successfully navigating government can lead to tremendous results. Allies in government can act as lobbyers, provide information, and funding.

However, Bloom’s analysis of the “ecosystem” is scant on details of the potential roles of private sector partners and educational institutions. Similarly, the role of social media in scaling awareness of an organization was quietly left out.

Change is one of the biggest challenges

In Chapter 4, Bloom discusses a common challenge social entrepreneurs face: changing entrenched habits in order to become a “social marketer.” Bloom walks readers through the efforts to persuade pregnant women to abstain from drinking alcohol as an example of social marketing that parallels the challenges organizations encounter when trying to encourage new behaviour.

Social marketing requires tailoring messages to the tastes, preferences and abilities of individuals based upon research of target audiences and tracking surveys. Bloom states that Earnings-Generation (the effectiveness with which the organization generates a stream of revenue that exceeds its expenses) may be the most important capability for scaling. He cites the success of micro financing as largely due to its ability to generate a profit margin while offering a social good.

In order to do so, Bloom stresses the importance of knowledge of a variety of markets – not just the finance market. While engaging social impact investors for capital is an important way to participate in the financial market, social entrepreneurs must also be knowledgeable of the trends in business, educational, philanthropic and labour markets in order to succeed. He returns to his earlier assertion that research and demonstrable results are key to engaging effectively in markets.

Is your business ready to scale up?

Bloom concludes with a series of self assessment tools social entrepreneurs can use to gauge their readiness for scaling. The tools are meant to guage an entrepreneur’s readiness for growth, and could be useful to those curious about what it takes to succeed.

The book is pragmatic, and organized. Bloom is cautiously optimistic about start-ups, and in contrast to other approaches, moves away from selling the vision of social enterprises and urges readers to understand the practical challenges and obstacles that prevent entrepreneurs from succeeding.

Although it reads like a textbook at times, Bloom’s successful use of real world examples allows the reader to see his insights demonstrated in real world terms.

Aisha Ansari
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Aisha Ansari is an Economist for the Government of Ontario, and a graduate of the University of Toronto and London School of Economics.

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