2013-04-03

Co.Exist

5 Things Social Enterprises Should Learn About Scale From Big Companies

To make a true difference, social enterprises have to get big--something they’re not often prepared to do. You know what’s very good at operating at large scale? Big corporations.

If McDonald’s can empower millions of franchise employees to make millions of perfect Big Macs a week, can a social enterprise empower hundreds of thousands to provide basic health care or education to their communities?

Of course Big Macs aren’t the same as education or health care, but here are five practices from big companies that social enterprises or NGOs more broadly could adopt to deliver the same quality of goods or services to a huge number of people in a vast array of different contexts:

1: Scale down

Sometimes to scale up, you first have to scale your product or service down to what you can procure locally or what you can expect local staff and volunteers to provide consistently. The Big Mac is a great example of that in the corporate world. Did you know each McDonald’s franchise gets most of its supplies from its own country? The McDonald’s supply chain is surprisingly local and surprisingly partnership- and data-driven, using constant feedback loops to ensure uniform quality from a broad array of suppliers all the way to the consumer. The key is figuring out exactly what level of complexity is required for a uniform quality of service or product, and adapting locally as needed. Big Macs in India, for example, are made from chicken instead of beef and are known as Maharaja Macs. This notion is also at the heart of an approach like Ideo’s famous human-centered design.

2: Build on top of existing networks or platforms 

Remember when Amazon only used to sell books? After BRAC, the organization where I work, figured out how to scale down health, education or agriculture extension services to the point where it could train over a hundred thousand women and counting in South Asia and Africa to provide those services reliably to their neighbors, BRAC went to its existing network of microfinance village organizations to recruit for microfranchisees. That wasn’t just because those are the women BRAC knows best; it’s also because those are the women who have already started gaining social capital as community leaders.

3: Cultivate talent inside your organization

At Procter & Gamble, each of the top 50 jobs has three replacement candidates from its own ranks lined up. In a company that has so many brands and products, a deep internal bench is more than an absolute necessity--it’s also a strategy to give up-and-coming leaders a chance to grow and shine. Compare that with global development’s constant churn of intern or entry-level to grad school to field staff then back to head office, all alongside a huge network of short-term consultants, many of whom wind up as project leaders. On the brighter side, Etsy’s program developing female software engineers internally is already making progress reducing the gender gap between the site’s vast majority of female customers versus almost entirely male engineering staff.

4: Customer relationship management

People love to hate how much information companies are storing about them and get creeped out when they discover how companies are acting on that information. But that level of data-driven decision-making is something social enterprises, donors, and investors have been dreaming about for years now. As BRAC continues growing the 275,000-strong membership in its Empowerment and Livelihoods for Adolescents clubs in seven countries, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll know in five or ten years exactly how many of BRAC’s microfranchisees in health or agriculture or were once members of those clubs and also how those lives have changed over that period of time. Call me a creeper, but I’m not alone; BRAC and its philanthropic partners like Nike Foundation, MasterCard Foundation and Whole Planet Foundation all want to know just how much of an impact their work is having and how they’ll need to adjust their work in the future.

5: Don’t over-think it

The App Store. Multitasking. GPS. All signature iPhone features. None were featured on the original iPhone. All of the above is a lot to think about for social entrepreneurs or NGOs, but don’t lose sight of the fact that the most important ideas often won’t emerge until your product or service is out in the marketplace.

Depending on whom you ask, multinational companies can be a social enterpreneur’s best friend or worst enemy. While no multinational company is foolproof when it comes to say, preventing workers’ rights abuses, environmental damage, or corruption, they get things done with the efficiency and scale that many social entrepreneurs dream about. You may never eat a Big Mac, but you can learn plenty from it nonetheless.

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