Can social impact be growth hacked?

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Just as digital marketers evolved to become growth hackers, I would like to call on social entrepreneurs and impact investors to become impact hackers

Though “growth hacking” originated in the startup and tech ecosystem, social entrepreneurs and impact investors should apply its principles to their organisations, if they also wish to accelerate and scale their social impact. In other words, the social good can be growth-hacked just as much as product marketing or user acquisition.

Social entrepreneurs and impact investors must first have a working understanding of the term. Growth hacking is often misconstrued as the application of a single tactic that will lead to exponential, hockey-stick growth, when it is in fact much broader: The term refers to a general approach of experimentation across the business in search of the most efficient ways to grow users, revenue, or other key metrics. It is the process and the orientation rather than just the result or the effect.

There are many examples of successful growth hacking that social entrepreneurs and impact investors should take note of. These range from personal finance apps that engage in “VIP marketing” to selected customers and edutech platforms that send lessons directly to the customer via email to direct-to-customer agritech platforms that help fruit and vegetable farmers earn up to 20% more revenue.

While social entrepreneurship has these occasional examples of successful growth hacking, they are few and far between. The problem is that many of us erroneously assume that growth hacking can only apply to business metrics like users, revenue, sign-ups, and downloads. The idea that growth-hacking may apply to social impact does not even register with us, particularly at the crucial stage of forming our organisation.

Case in point: Aspiring social entrepreneurs are often encouraged to find a problem that we want to solve. The issue with this advice is that not all problems are created equal. Addressing some problems will have a disproportionately significant impact on our beneficiaries, while others will have a comparatively smaller impact and should thus not be pursued. This truth may sound callous to some, but it’s necessary if we wish to optimize the limited resources toward the areas where we can affect the greatest change.

To see this idea in action, let’s take the hypothetical case of a social entrepreneur trying to decide which of two causes to champion, both of which she has experienced first-hand. Option one is about pencils. After noticing that students in her rural village often use old pencils nearly worn down to the nub, she thinks of starting a social enterprise with a buy one, give one model to provide them with newer pencils. Option two is about bridges. After also noticing that some students are tired throughout the school day, exhausted from a commute that involves swimming across a river, she thinks of starting a social enterprise that builds cheaper, sustainable bridges using locally sourced materials.

Also read: Bottomline is not everything, and these 3 marketplaces built for good causes are models of social enterprise

Which option would you choose? This social entrepreneur would likely choose option one, but that would only lead to incremental change. You go for new pencils and you get new pencils. Option two, on the other hand, would lead to exponential change. You go after the issue of swimming to school, but you end up solving many direct and related problems: You save students from the possibility of drowning and the risk of water-borne illnesses, improve their quality of life by enabling them to skip the rigamarole of swimming across a river and changing into new clothes, and increase their educational capacity by sending them to school with more energy, to not even mention how this social enterprise would also help the local environment and engineering community.

Social entrepreneurs and impact investors need to internalize the fundamental principle at work here: We need to think in systems. Addressing some problems will end there, while through others we can solve a whole host of direct, interrelated, and ancillary issues. Just as digital marketers evolved to become growth hackers, I would like to call on social entrepreneurs and impact investors to become impact hackers. As passionate as we may be about the world, we must be exacting in where we apply our limited time, energy, and capital. You may think of impact hacking, then, as a real-world addendum on the ambition of youth: We want to change the world efficiently.

Impact hacking is difficult because it requires extensive patience, self-examination, and exploration – traits that may not necessarily come naturally to entrepreneurs biased toward action.

I myself strive to impact hack every day. At SolarHome, we give people living off-the-grid access to light via pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar panels, which makes a disproportionately great social impact, including everything from reducing CO2 pollution and preventing deadly fires associated with kerosene lamps to helping users earn more money and even study longer.

To date, we have helped 16,000 families in Myanmar and plan to aid the 27 million households in Southeast Asia still suffering from a lack of light access. Our achievements here are poetic for anyone who wants to understand the potential of impact hacking: The change for your beneficiaries – like any household with one of our systems – will be as stark as the difference between night and day.

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