Andy Lieberman

New Methods and Models for Social Enterprise Accelerators: Building a stronger, more efficient network

Just as it takes a whole village to raise one child, it takes a global support network to help one social entrepreneur reach their vision. That isn’t because social entrepreneurs are as needy and tender as children. Instead, it is because social entrepreneurs have such large visions of transformative change that they can’t achieve them single-handedly. (Not to mention that their visions and passion are so exciting that many of us can’t help but want to be a part of the solutions they are working towards.)

One of the best supports for social enterprises looking for a boost to get to the next level of their venture is participating in one or more of the growing number of social enterprise accelerator programs available. As the field of social entrepreneurship has mushroomed over the last decade, so has the offering of accelerators.

Today’s plugged-in social entrepreneur is bombarded by invitations to apply to accelerator programs, but each has its own timeline, format, and focus. Some accelerators such as the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI®) – with which I’m affiliated – and The Unreasonable Institute source participants globally. Depending on their location, entrepreneurs can also apply to localized programs such as Villgro’s SEED program in India and Village Capital’s programs in places as diverse as Nairobi and Hawaii. Accelerators like the GSBI have been around long enough to see some of our ventures go on to achieve dramatic success, like Kiva (’06) and VisionSpring (’06). The next big success stories are surely among the hundreds of ventures participating in accelerator programs today, and it will be satisfying to see them break into the limelight.

For those of us lucky enough to spend our days (and nights) thinking about how to help more social entrepreneurs help more people, the messiness of the impact accelerator landscape leads to a lot of questions. How can we reach more entrepreneurs? How we can guide the right entrepreneurs to the right program at the right time? How can we maximize our impact on the enterprise? Not to mention, how can we cover our costs of helping these enterprises? My work with the GSBI centers on answering these questions by strengthening and expanding our program offerings.

These were among the questions we discussed more broadly at the Innovations in Capacity Development for Social Enterprise panel that I moderated at the SOCAP13 conference earlier this month. The panelists were SEED’s PR “Guns” Ganapathy, Unreasonable Institute’s Teju Ravilochan, my GSBI colleague Cassandra Staff, Village Capital’s Victoria Fram, and the World Bank Development Marketplace’s Drew vonGlahn.

Last year’s report, Bridging the “Pioneer Gap”: The Role of Accelerators in Launching High-Impact Enterprises, looked at 52 impact-focused accelerators and found that 73 percent are less than five years old. Fortunately, the accelerators are evolving together and are collaborating. In 2011, Halloran Philanthropies recognized the accelerators’ role in global social impact and began bringing us together for pre-SOCAP work sessions to foster collaboration. There are some tangible outcomes, like the creation of a common application questionnaire that is being used by Village Capital and GSBI among others to make it easier for busy entrepreneurs to apply to our programs. To simplify further, these accelerators are also migrating to a common platform called F6S for the application process.

With so many accelerators and competitive application processes, it can be hard for a social entrepreneur to choose the right program at the right time. The entrepreneur has to prioritize between applying for an accelerator program over, say, applying for a grant or bidding on a project. Smart entrepreneurs will do their own diligence on an accelerator to see if what is provided will be right for them at their current stage. Fortunately most accelerators give quite a bit of detail about their programs, mentors, and past participants, through which, prospective applicants can gauge the fit before applying.

Each accelerator targets a specific type of enterprise. Villgro’s new SEED program focuses exclusively on helping for-profit Indian social enterprises raise their first outside investments. Unreasonable Institute provides mentorship, capital, and a global support network through a multi-week in-residence experience. GSBI takes an in-depth business model-centric approach and provides seasoned mentors with Silicon Valley start-up experience. Village Capital’s program is built around peer-to-peer support and guaranteed investment for the best ventures from each cohort.

The World Bank Development Marketplace brought another innovative model to the panel discussion. After more than a decade of giving grants to promising enterprises, the Development Marketplace has made a commitment to providing capacity development services to their grantees. In order to avoid reinventing the wheel, they are partnering with existing accelerators in an interesting experiment. As part of their latest competition in India, on top of the cash grant, they have assigned an additional dollar amount for capacity development and will allow each entrepreneur to use those funds to retain the services of a vetted group of service providers.

The Development Marketplace’s new model creates value and efficiency for all parties, and it points to a potential opportunity for overcoming a limitation that most accelerators face today. Of the accelerators studied in the Bridging the Pioneer Gap report, 74 percent rely on philanthropy. This limits our own sustainability and scalability. Villgro is piloting another approach, which is to charge a success fee, in which entrepreneurs who successfully raise investments are required to pay the accelerator for the services they received.

The upcoming Aspen Network for Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE)-funded study, Making the $-Value Added Business Case for Incubator/Accelerator Services, conducted by I-Dev International, will give more insight into these issues and surface ways for accelerators to strengthen their programs to keep up with the growing demand for their services.

Given the flurry of research, collaboration and action, social entrepreneurs can expect a ‘smarter’ and more efficient accelerator space rising to meet them.

Andy Lieberman is the director of New Program R&D for the Global Social Benefit Institute at Santa Clara University, his focus is on building partnerships and content development.

Author’s note: Applications are being accepted through Oct. 31, 2013 for the 2014 GSBI® Accelerator. The GSBI Accelerator helps social entrepreneurs understand and fill gaps in their organizations that prevent them from achieving scale and helps them identify and find appropriate capital to rapidly increase their impact. Details available here.

business development, incubators