Last year, at Doing Development Differently (DDD), a workshop hosted by Harvard’s Building State Capability program and the Overseas Development Institute, many attendees signed a document called the “DDD Manifesto.” Drawing on the concept of problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA), the manifesto calls for local ownership of development initiatives from conception to implementation, high levels of community participation, and rapid cycles of execution and revision. The most relevant ideas for initiatives and implementation strategies, it holds, come from sources most familiar with the local challenges. 

This thinking is in line with entrepreneurship that follows the effectuation model: Rather than starting with a solution in mind and determining how to develop it, effectuating entrepreneurs first think about a problem and then consider the resources they have available to craft a solution. Using that approach, social bricoleurs who are part of the community they are trying to change can cobble together different resources and people to address local needs and problems using unique expertise and resources that “outsiders” wouldn’t have.  These entrepreneurs need a sort of social incubation—a period of time to test out and adapt their ideas to solve local problems in the contexts where the problems actually occur.  

The paradox, of course, is that while direct experience with unmet social needs might make local entrepreneurs very well-positioned to solve local problems, lack of access to incubators, funders, and technical support often simultaneously disempowers them from implementing their solutions. Social bricoleurs working in very disadvantaged communities on basic issues such as access to healthcare or clean water, for example, might not have the personal or professional background to think of themselves as “entrepreneurs,” or the basic tools necessary to apply for outside funding (such as access to an email address or familiarity with writing a business plan). Social bricoleurs tend to emphasize grassroots innovation and problem-solving within their neighborhood or region, and to draw on local resources already available to them. 

The global social entrepreneurship and impact investing communities exacerbate this paradox by emphasizing projects that are “scalable” and that often come from “the outside.”  They look for solutions that they can apply across different contexts, even though problems (and their causes and effects) vary widely across communities and cultures. Major social startup investors like Acumen and Endeavor look for startups that are “ready to scale,” rather than early-stage ones that require trial-and-error to succeed.  Outsiders also tend to prefer solutions that seem to work based on previous experience in other settings, rather than ideas that actually make sense for the local context (aka isomorphic mimicry). Therefore, social bricoleurs focused on new solutions for local problems are generally off the radar of large organizations looking to support development. 

In response to this paradox and the challenges that social bricoleurs face in accessing resources, some new models for social startups and community development are emerging. These incubators and funders emphasize working with social startups that are striving to solve a problem or priority identified by their own community, rather than implementing a pre-packaged solution already developed elsewhere. They also often draw on the principles of community-based participatory research to identify local priorities. In India’s poorest state, for example, the Bihar Innovation Lab is taking an approach to health that focuses on the mother-and-child relationship, and uses tools such as ethnography, design thinking, and community data sharing to promote innovation. Spark Microgrants provides small grants to communities so that the community can develop its own solutions to self-identified, priority problems. African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC) focuses on skills training, business mentoring, and local financing for existing local startups that can fuel further job creation in their communities. Launched in Rwanda, AEC has just completed its two-year pilot and—through a deep investment of time and high-risk capital—has helped local entrepreneurs create hundreds of local jobs. Alfanar, the first Arab venture philanthropy firm, provides financing and training for social entrepreneurs in Egypt and Lebanon after extensive efforts to identify “hidden” entrepreneurs serving marginalized communities. 

These new models offer promising ways forward for social startup incubation and funding, but even startups that receive this sort of support face significant challenges. Engaging local investors alongside the innovators is critical to completing the life cycle from conception to implementation. This will require that we mobilize stakeholders within and across local communities to promote what the “DDD Manifesto” calls “local ownership.” 

We believe that the solutions with the greatest potential for creating lasting change in a community are those that develop within that community. The greatest obstacles to catalyzing these locally led solutions are social, logistical, and financial. On the social front, we can break assumptions and challenge feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, creating and supporting success stories that will demonstrate that change is possible. On the logistical front, we can help forge connections and build supply chains to operationalize innovations generated by the community. And on the financial front, we need to mobilize investors to take a risk on local leaders. 

Rather than spreading impact by introducing innovations from the outside-in, it’s time we think of scale as seeding solutions inside a community, and then expanding from the inside-out.