Google “social entrepreneurship,” and you’ll get more than three million hits. The common consensus that runs through the many definitions of this term is the belief that we only can solve such ancient problems as homelessness, hunger, violence and so many others through innovative thinking. This realization often leads us to what appears to be the next logical step: the creation of organizations – whether for-profit or nonprofit – through which to bring fresh approaches to old social ills.
But what does it really take to address social problems on a large scale? How can we focus our efforts to achieve the greatest good? In an economic climate where increasing human service needs must be met with fewer resources, will “innovative” approaches to social entrepreneurship help charities…or get in their way? This last question was raised in
“5 Challenges for the Nonprofit World,” a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article in which the authors illuminate some of the many challenges – most of them financial – faced by nonprofits in 2012.
When it comes to social entrepreneurship, the temptation to “start fresh” can be strong.
I certainly understand that draw, as starting a small organization can make someone feel close to a cause. But I would suggest that there is a better option – reaching out to one of the many established organizations that provide the highest quality advocacy and social services, and learning how to collaborate with them to make a difference.
Of course, innovation – regardless of economic conditions or an organization’s mission –
is still critical. My organization, Safe Horizon, was created 32 years ago to bring services to victims of crime and abuse. These services were groundbreaking at the time. Safe Horizon now has more than 600 staff in 50 locations throughout New York City to help clients who have experienced some of the worst things people do to each other – child abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence, and sexual assault. And while there have been hundreds of thousands of non-profit organizations that have opened their doors since Safe Horizon’s founding in 1970, an analysis by the Stanford Social Innovation Review ranks us among the few that have grown to more than $50 million in revenues. That’s because our ideas have worked.
The reality is that social services on a truly significant scale are delivered by established nonprofits – typically in partnership with government. So while there is no question that creativity, ingenuity and innovation are needed to solve social problems, they must be complemented with strong management. Only a well-managed organization can overcome the challenges of the nonprofit world to deliver meaningful assistance to its constituents – hundreds of thousands of people each year, in the case of Safe Horizon.
A sizeable and professionally run nonprofit enterprise enjoys numerous benefits of scale that can enable it to provide much more to people in need than a smaller organization. Among them:
- A continuum of integrated services: At Safe Horizon, for example, survivors of domestic violence can receive shelter, legal services, counseling, court accompaniment, and even a change of their locks – all from a single organization instead of having to seek such help from a patchwork of sources.
- Evaluative data: With resources dedicated to evaluation, we can determine – over large groups and over time – what really works best to help people in need.
- Deep expertise, training, and technology: As the organization that runs New York City’s domestic violence, rape crisis, and crime victims’ hotline, Safe Horizon has made tremendous investments in building staff and systems that provide the most professional support possible to callers.
- Highly professional management: Large organizations attract experts in technology, finance, and general management who are at the top of their fields.
When new ideas prove to be useful and good, they result in growth for the organization implementing them. From my perspective, those who want to do the most to address social ills should support the successful work of the best-managed service organizations. When well-managed organizations deliver services on a large scale, they provide the most value to the greatest number of people in need. This is an essential approach to strengthening our social safety nets at a time when all of us must do more with less.
Ariel Zwang is Chief Executive Officer of Safe Horizon, the nation’s leading provider of services to victims of crime and abuse.