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What we can learn from successful social entrepreneurs


Guest post by Daniel Altman, Director of Thought Leadership at Dalberg Global Development Advisors

How do you take the pulse of a growing field that spans the globe and touches almost every industry?  Social enterprise is so enormous and multifaceted that surveying it in a meaningful way might seem like a hopeless task.  But the field has its leaders – people who have created enduring organizations with national and even international visibility.  When these leaders share their hard-won insights, they can help the thousands of other social entrepreneurs to be more successful.

That’s the thinking behind the first Dalberg Survey of Social Enterprise, which we completed with a team from HBS’s “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” course for undergraduates.  We scoured our networks for leading social entrepreneurs and asked them to take a short online survey.  They told us some fascinating things about their enterprises: how often they changed their business plans, how close they were to becoming financially sustainable, how they used data versus storytelling to share their results with potential funders, whether they thought they would ever be able to depend entirely on their own revenues, and more.

We found sharp contrasts in approaches taken by successful enterprises in different industries and between for-profits and non-profits.  And the leading entrepreneurs also offered a wealth of wisdom gleaned from personal experiences, often echoing the notion that social enterprise was at least as tough as regular commercial enterprise.  As Premal Shah, the founder of Kiva, said, ”We need to take cues from Apple, Facebook, and others who keep their heads down and execute.”

To read about the results of the survey and more quotes from leaders in social enterprise, please click here ( And then, if you have a moment, please let us know what you thought:  What was most surprising about the survey’s results?  Did what the leaders said resonate with your own experiences?  What questions should we ask next time?



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