Social entrepreneurs can learn from the global effort to fight polio. In the first decade of this century, efforts to vanquish the disease once and for all stalled. With an injection of capital and insight from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative or GPEI launched an “end game strategy” near the middle of this decade, driving an acceleration of progress.
Rotary International first organized the global effort to fight polio in the mid-1980s. With help from the U.S. CDC, World Health Organization and UNICEF, the effort has become one of the biggest global public health initiatives in history. (Full disclosure: I have been hired to speak to Rotary audiences about polio eradication.)
The number of cases dropped from about 350,000 per year in the mid-1980s to fewer than 1,000 documented cases in 2001 but little progress was made over next ten years. In 2010, more than 1300 cases were documented. While tremendous ground had been gained from the mid-80s level of 350,000 to 400,000 cases per year, the numbers suggest little progress was made during that span.
Late in the decade, the Gates Foundation joined the GPEI, bringing much needed financial resources and a fresh perspective. By 2014, the GPEI had developed an “End Game Strategy” that implicitly recognized that what had gotten them below 1,000 cases once, wouldn’t get them to zero. More was needed. Since implementation in 2014, the number of cases has fallen more than 90%, from 505 in 2013 to 29 in 2018, bringing complete eradication within grasp.
Social entrepreneurs can take a lesson from this. Whatever impact they might seek, the activities that get them on the path and even to measurable progress may not be what is required to reach the goal.
The polio end game strategy included a significant increase in annual funding, expanded global collaboration and incorporation of new technology–a new vaccine.
Similarly, what is required for a social enterprise to go from one level of success to the next will likely require investment, collaboration and innovation.
Investment: If the profits from the business are sufficient, the investment could be internally generated, but it is more likely that success will require more outside capital.
Collaboration: As an organization grows, opportunities for collaboration will likely improve. As the GPEI gained traction in the fight to end polio globally, governments around the world engaged more thoughtfully. It has become clear that virtually no amount of effort absent the participation of government will allow for polio eradication where it is most deeply rooted. The need for collaboration may grow with the opportunity.
Innovation: The GPEI learned from the experience in India that a bivalent vaccine that protects against only two of the three known types of polio is more effective than the trivalent version that also protects against a strain that is known to be completely eradicated. The new bivalent vaccine is used around the world today. Social entrepreneurs may need to find similarly fundamental innovations to get them to their next level of success.
For the past four years, I have been saying this year will be the last that anyone gets polio—proving I’m not a prophet. Still, the progress has been dramatic and the lessons clear. What got us here won’t necessarily get us where we’re going. If you want to go farther, faster, then invest, collaborate and innovate.