Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mission Drift: The Bogeyman of Social Entrepreneurship

The initial public offer (IPO) by SKS Microfinance is a landmark event: likely to set the stage for other IPOs in this area. I find much to cheer about in this development as financial inclusion goes mainstream and scales so a dream turns to reality for many many more people who live under $4/day. Not unexpectedly, the recent hoop-la about the IPO has come from activists and NGOs who worry that this move spells a mission drift - a profit from poverty mentality versus helping the poor, that has always been the bogeyman of social entrepreneurship.

The issue is that pure philanthropy does not scale. Charity funding is critical in providing a start to change-makers driven by passion for helping the poor. However, once a business model becomes sustainable, its capital need is far greater than what can be met by traditional philanthropic sources.

But change is hard for many to swallow and hence appears the bogeyman of mission drift - all the things that are wrong with the business world. But the bottom line is that there are also many things right with the business world. Besides- just as many albeit different, things are wrong with the charity model. Of course things can always go wrong, with greed overtaking social mission as MFIs go mainstream, but that risk is far lower than the risk of stagnation and besides financial instruments exist to manage it.

With access to more capital, I actually think things will improve for the clients of MFI because there will be pressure to bring interest rates into alignment with traditional banks. In recognition of this Businessworld article says "Earlier this year, India's finance minister said non-banking financial corporations (NBFCs), including some like SKS, can be granted banking licences, signalling a greater role for MFIs. But India's central bank has pulled up MFIs for their high interest rates -- about 25-27 percent. That is about double the rate at which they borrow from banks, but still lower than moneylenders."

Actually this business of mission drift has become a particular peeve of mine because of my past 4 years of experience directly working with social entrepreneurs. The SKS IPO provides an example against which I can generalise. Budding social entrepreneurs face an uphill task as it is. They initially get ignored by traditional capital and foundation money is so scarce that the competition in the field of social entrepreneurship is unhealthy (results in inability to merge or collaborate later on). Two factors come into play: First, self doubt in the mind of the entrepreneur in entertaining a realistic revenue generation (Am I being social enough?) plan for sustainability. Second, many opt for an incorrect business model which later becomes difficult to change, especially given the negative feedback from their initial supporters. The way I see it, the issue of mission drift is an operational issue - to be managed like any other risk whereas having a built-in plan to get to sustainability and scale is a strategic choice which guides impact in the long run.

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