Scale. This word is so overused in the social entrepreneurship sector that it has been practically rendered meaningless. What does scale mean when you are working in areas of deep market failure or government failure? When the very people you are trying to reach are “non-customers” – poor people who are overlooked by traditional players and not participating in the market?

For the past 15 years, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the sister organization of the World Economic Forum, has identified leading social entrepreneurs around the world who are pioneering breakthrough solutions to social and environmental problems. Today it manages the world’s largest network of late-stage social entrepreneurs, including the trailblazers that a generation of business school students have read as case studies and looked up to as role models.

In other words, the social enterprises in our network have achieved scale. By any objective standard, their numbers are staggering: VisionSpring has increased the productivity and incomes of more than 2 million poor people through the sale of reading glasses and vision-correction services in Asia, Africa and Latin America, creating an economic impact estimated at $280 million. First Book has elevated the quality of educational materials for low-income children by distributing more than 130 million books and resources to schools and educational programmes across North America. I could go on, but you get the picture.

A drop in the ocean

Yet when you talk to virtually any social entrepreneur in the Schwab Foundation network, they will describe their impact as a “drop in the ocean” and say things like: “I’m not even 5% of where I want to be.” They are proud of their achievements, yes, and they have a right to be; their interventions have improved, and in some cases radically transformed, the lives of millions. Even so, it is hard sometimes to avoid the conflicting feelings so eloquently described by Kovin Naidoo as “being responsible for an island of success in a sea of despair”.

And by any objective standard, Kovin is right. Despite thousands of islands of successes created by social entrepreneurs around the world, there remains a tidal wave of human need. After all, there are an estimated 700 million people around the world in need of something as simple as corrective glasses or routine cataract surgery so they can see, learn and earn income for their families. And yet their need goes unmet. An even larger number of people are illiterate or have only basic reading skills, two-thirds of them women and girls. Again, I could go on, but we know these figures. They are thrown at us all the time.

With few exceptions, social entrepreneurship has not delivered on its promise to fundamentally, and on a large scale, solve big social challenges such that a critical mass of people affected by that problem substantially benefit. The frustration with this gap – between the promise and the reality, between the number of beneficiaries reached and the size of the unmet need that stubbornly remains orders of magnitude larger – is shared by many (and increasingly openly), but it felt most keenly by social entrepreneurs themselves.

A new set of solutions

What excites me most about the potential of social entrepreneurship to fulfil its promise in the decade ahead is the sea change we are seeing in how social entrepreneurs are thinking about scaling their solutions.

“Very often, scale is looked at as scaling an organization or enterprise as opposed to scaling a concept,” said Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur Jeroo Billimoria, Founder and CEO of Aflatoun and ChildFinance International. “Looking beyond scaling a particular organization requires a major mindset shift. We must determine how we can collaboratively scale action around a particular problem through the engagement of all the stakeholders affected by the issue. Only then will we make meaningful changes in how complex social problems are taken on.”

Over the coming weeks, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship will feature a special blog series examining how leading social entrepreneurs are scaling their solutions for global impact. Those of us working to support social entrepreneurs recognize the transformative potential these models have for millions of poor people in need of affordable healthcare, quality education, sanitation, housing and access to all of the opportunities we take for granted – opportunities that will enable them to lead productive, dignified lives. It’s time to help everyone else understand it too.

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Author: Katherine Milligan is the Director and Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

Image: People of different races hold hands. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri