As I scan the ideas-for-good sprawled across tabs on my computer screen—from a mobile grocery store to solve food deserts to a mental health app to encourage kids processing trauma to an app to connect the incarcerated with loved ones and families—the job of whittling down the applicant pool gets much harder because of the single-most problematic assumption so many of them make: that a single enterprise at scale will solve a massive social issue.
For years, social enterprise pitch competitions have operated the same way: Submitters present their world-changing idea and judges ask them standard questions rooted in a venture capital model. People too often conflate scaling impact with scaling enterprises. When we evaluate social ventures, why would we port over the Silicon Valley venture capital lens which incentivizes bigger, better, faster when positive impact may not always have this intent. As a pitch competition judge of social enterprises, incubators, and accelerators, I’ve seen hundreds of these ideas over the past five years, and nearly all of the social enterprise pitch competitions I’ve participated in apply a “grow fast, make money” model in the questions they ask: How well does the venture understand the problem, target customer, and market opportunity? How well does the solution uniquely address a problem or need in the market? How well does the venture have a competitive advantage? What is the traction made thus far?
These questions only make sense if we’re trying to incentivize scaling an organization. But doesn’t creating sustainable social impact require a different model than a Silicon Valley venture? After all, no single organization can solve global social problems. It will take a coordinated effort across sectors from social ventures to policymakers to local social service providers.
What if the pitch format used different judging criteria to promote scaling the venture and the impact itself? I know there are others out there that are thinking the same way, and as judges, we hold the power to change the rules of the game.
A Call for a New Judges’ Playbook
If scaling impact—rather than the enterprise—is the goal, there are five must-ask questions that I recommend for my fellow judges. But take note, social entrepreneurs: These are also the questions you should be prepared to answer. Let’s use that first business idea I was asked to evaluate—a mobile grocery store to solve food deserts in blighted neighborhoods—and put this new model into practice.
0. (Internal) What value can I bring as a judge? Judges should constantly question the expertise they bring to an evaluation. I’m not an expert on food deserts, but on this panel, I was the lone business-oriented social impact practitioner, so I offered insight into the complexities of gentrification and affordable housing—alongside healthy food access. The voice of lived experience is crucial to exploring social impact and must be part of any judging panel. Moreover, those in the position of power have an imperative to use their voices responsibly and make room for the right voices to be heard.
1. What is your “TAP” (Total Addressable Problem)? A typical panel will ask about the Total Addressable Market (TAM), essentially “what’s the market opportunity?” But when it comes to impact projects, we should first ask if the venture truly understands the social problem and how it is evolving, something like the Total Addressable Problem (TAP): the magnitude of the problem being addressed and its interlocking causes. Ann Mei Chang, former Chief Innovation Officer at USAID and author of Lean Impact, asks it beautifully, “Are we falling in love more with the solution or problem?” In the case of food deserts, there is limited access to affordable and nutritious food in a given urban locale. Providing access to a new food source is a good start, but how will cooking, preparing, and consuming this nutritious food have a positive health impact on community members? What ways are the venture changing habits for people not used to eating healthier? Know your TAP, and then we can talk about solutions.