Supporting the Supporters: Why Impact-Focused Incubators and Accelerators Struggle to Find Talent
Today, of the millions of social entrepreneurs starting new social ventures around the world, only a few thousand get access to support. Potentially world-changing ideas might fail because social entrepreneurs cannot access the appropriate support to grow their social venture.
When the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN) talks to our members, a recurring topic is how to attract, develop and retain talent in their organisations. GSEN members are working with social entrepreneurs, day-in and day-out, enabling them to create positive and long-lasting social impact, while helping them to become increasingly financially sustainable and grow their ventures. Our research supports their concerns: According to a survey we conducted of members, 86 percent of incubators and accelerators are experiencing challenges around talent attraction, development or retention that influence how they fulfill their mission. To help, GSEN set up the Talent Project with the BMW Foundation. We wanted to better understand how organisations in our sector relate to talent, how much of an issue is it for them to attract, develop and retain talent, and what solutions exist or need to be imagined.
It’s a tall order to attract a professional profile that fits
Several organisations in the GSEN network (especially in developing countries) have recently faced difficulties in recruiting second- or third-level managers. Some professionals, especially at the beginning of their careers, are attracted to work in social incubators or accelerators, operating at the crossroads between business and social impact. It’s a trendy space, as shown by the number of new incubators and accelerators that are emerging all over the place.
However, newcomers may not fully realise what skills are needed to work in this space. You need strong business skills to support startup ventures in piloting and building a successful business; you need a good understanding of social impact to help entrepreneurs manage and grow their impact; and you need to be a good relationship builder to create partnerships with investors, mentors and other organisations. Most importantly, you need soft skills, attitude and cultural fit. It’s a long list of requirements and such profiles are not easy to find.
Investing in talent isn’t easy and keeping talent can be harder
Organisations supporting social entrepreneurs often have relatively limited annual budgets and there’s a constant burden to raise further funding to develop. On average, the organisations we work with have 10 full-time staff and annual operating budgets of US $1.5 million (data collected from GSEN members in summer 2017).
Consequently, there is a lack of resources to invest in long-term talent development (or at least that talent development is considered a lower priority). This can mean less attractive compensation packages, uncompetitive salary progression scales, limited funds for professional training, or uncertainty about the ability to retain employees for the long term. This can result in high staff turnover rates, which makes it more difficult to invest in talent. According to our survey, one in five incubators and accelerators working in the impact space feels that the turnover rate has a negative impact on their organisation. High staff turnover and a lack of resources to invest in talent creates a vicious circle that’s difficult for organisations to break out of.
Shaping the sector and learning at the same time
Social entrepreneurship support is a new and rapidly evolving sector. There is no post-graduate degree on the topic to learn from, but we are collectively creating the quality standards of what works best in supporting social entrepreneurs. While it might be challenging to financially invest significant amounts in training, there are other ways to invest in your staff. Learning and personal development are possible, with 82 percent of incubators and accelerators in our survey providing opportunities for junior and mid-level employees to take on more responsibility and challenging work.
In an ecosystem that is still fragmented at the global and national level, networks like GSEN play an essential role in enabling organisations to access best practices, knowledge-sharing opportunities and peer support. This contributes to them iterating their programmes, tailoring them to social entrepreneurs’ needs and continually reflecting on the effectiveness and impact created by their work. This helps to create an ongoing learning opportunity for employees.
Our watchwords for solving your talent crisis
Be conscious of and explicitly discuss the talent issue in your organisation. This will ensure that talent development is a higher priority.
Develop a talent pool around your organisation. Identify where the best candidates have come from in the past or where they could come from in the future, and build relevant relationships.
Salary is not everything. Build a personal development plan with your employees (with a personalised training plan) and see how you can offer them additional non-financial benefits (fellowship programmes, secondment or volunteering opportunities, coaching, travels to conferences, etc.).
Be pragmatic. If people want to move on, be open to it from the start and engage them in the succession planning and handover process as a win-win situation.
Krisztina Tora acts as CEO of the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network (GSEN) – a network for organisations supporting early-stage social entrepreneurs in 70 countries, to improve the reach, quality and sustainability of support. She is also the lead author of the GSEN Report “From Seed to Impact.”