Globalizing Great Social Projects

Posted by Daniel Ben-Horin
Founder and co-CEO, TechSoup Global
Ashoka Senior Fellow

I had a rare opportunity last month to participate in the Tech4Society event at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, India. The event, convened by Ashoka and the Lemelson Foundation with financial support from Microsoft, got me thinking about how the bar has moved from finding great projects to spreading great projects.

Ashoka, an organization dedicated to addressing societal needs by supporting innovative social entrepreneurs, is taking a very creative swing at this issue  with their new Globalizer program. At my organization, TechSoup Global, I feel the same urgency and responsibility to find ways to support the most motivated and creative people in our networks and create the conditions for their innovations to succeed and multiply.

For example, when someone comes up with an innovative supply chain to improve human waste disposal and sanitation facilities that can both improve living conditions and create jobs (as Ashoka-Lemelson fellow David Kuria has done in Kenya), then we need to closely consider how the project itself can be adapted and applied every place on the planet facing the same problem.

Or take Ashoka-Lemelson fellow Hilmi Quraishi, one of the laureates of the new Globalizer program. Quraishi’s team builds mobile phone–based games that educate users about health issues, particularly the prevention of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Quraishi has translated his games into multiple regional languages and brought them to players throughout India. With adequate support, Quraishi’s basic concept could be applied in communities all over the world. (This documentary shows how Quraishi’s partnership with Microsoft has deepened his project’s impact.)

For TechSoup Global, Ashoka, Microsoft and other organizations that can mobilize large communities, the opportunity is to globalize the ideas and innovations within our networks.  And we have to do this in a new way because, let’s be real, the old way doesn’t work very well. The old way, the traditional aid model, is top-down and counter-intuitive to how knowledge, innovation and energy spread in today’s world. There’s a better way. It still demands some subsidy, but it is based on applying subsidies where they can achieve the greatest leverage: On the ground, where it can support the most motivated and creative people and help create conditions for their successes to proliferate.

I think we have to get very clear on the difference between “replicating” and “scaling.” Replicating means duplicating a project in a new environment. Scaling means  bringing the business model and results of a small project to as wide an audience as possible. The private sector likes to scale, not replicate. Scaling boosts profits. And certainly we need scale in the social sector.

That said, replicating successful projects can be tremendously valuable in the social sector, where we emphasize empowering individuals and communities. Replicated projects usually arise from local ownership, and result in new local owners elsewhere.  Local ownership correlates with empowerment, which benefits from new technologies and processes.

On the replication side of the equation, I think there’s a pretty simple approach worth testing.  If there’s a social problem, a proven solution, and a dynamic network, it should be possible to identify the problem solvers, expose them to other potential problem solvers, and provide a modest subsidy to support knowledge transfer throughout the network.

So, in practice, this idea boils down to connecting and supporting small gatherings of potential replicators, where every participant has skin in the game.

I believe that skin in the game is a critical piece. Everyone should have an investment in success and be accountable for reporting on their tangible progress.

I want to look into a format whereby TechSoup Global could say to its partners around the world: Set aside time to be a host and teacher, and we will partially fund your work. We will help you amplify it. We will make your contribution of time and energy and knowledge available to others. You and those who invest in traveling to meet with you will be accountable for results and must report back on outputs, outcomes and learnings.

What can we as a network uniquely do to support the best innovators? Shine attention on their work and help create a simple, effective methodology for knowledge sharing and replication.

What might such an approach enable?

Hopefully a dynamic, viral form of globalization that is  in tune with the spirit of social entrepreneurship, that leverages new technologies to foster collaboration and, most importantly, that meets the needs of communities around the world.

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