Solving the ‘Last Mile’ Challenges of Social Enterprise

Leveraging the power of collaboration to tackle the unique challenges facing three social impact organizations was the focus of Wharton’s first Lipman Prize conference held Friday in Philadelphia.

The prize is awarded to an organization using innovative models to tackle global social and economic challenges. On Thursday, the inaugural prize was awarded to iDE, which seeks to introduce technologies, including water purifiers and sanitation systems, to poor, rural households in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

On Friday, iDE and fellow finalists Komaza, a social enterprise that works with rural dry land farmers in Kenya to grow trees as a cash crop, and MedShare, which collects surplus medical supplies and equipment in the U.S. and ships them to in-need areas abroad, each came to the conference to pose a challenge currently facing their organizations. Conference attendees broke into groups to discuss avenues the groups could explore moving forward.

“We can split the problems in the world into two categories,” said Jeff Klein, a Wharton lecturer and a member of the Lipman Prize steering committee. “There are technical problems, which we know the answer to, and then there are the kinds of problems with no easy answers. Those problems are best solved by groups.”

iDE is trying to conquer the “last mile challenge” of reaching customers in the most remote and infrastructure-poor areas. “That last mile is often the most expensive,” noted iDE CEO Al Doerksen. “That’s why markets don’t do what they are supposed to do.”

When Komaza begins working with farmers to grow eucalyptus trees, it anticipates having a long-term relationship with them, executive director Tevis Howard said. That’s why the organization is considering ways to diversify “horizontally,” by providing other services using the same infrastructure. “We’re serving a target population that really has little else going for them,” he noted. “Dry land farmers grow food in a giant sandbox that gets no rain. It’s the worst kind of poverty to be born into.”

MedShare currently collects donated medical supplies and ships them overseas from operations in Atlanta and the San Francisco Bay area. The organization is considering expanding to the Mid-Atlantic, but is trying to determine how to reach a multi-city region, including the New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore markets in a way that will create buy-in from local volunteer and donor bases, CEO Meridith Rentz said.

Attendees broke into groups to discuss each of the three challenges and to develop criteria each organization could consider in trying to advance to the next stage. Klein said discussing problems within an interdisciplinary group — in which participants aren’t necessarily experts intimately involved with the different issues — “can free people up to think in different ways that expertise doesn’t necessarily lead us to.”

“I often think it’s the wacky ideas that just pop out that have little nuggets of possibility in them that are worth taking back and exploring, Doerksen noted. “Those of us in-the-box every day don’t make room for out-of-the-box ideas because we’re too busy being responsible.”

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