Defining the constituencies a social venture supports seems like one of the simplest questions a social entrepreneur faces — after all bigger is better, right? In reality, it’s one of the most difficult and important questions to ask as you begin your journey as a changemaker — and it takes a lot of thought and hard choices to get it right.  So before you get started, read on for tips on how to clearly identify who is — and who is not — in your target group.

Why bigger isn't always better

It’s tempting to look at Facebook and how it now serves 1.23 Billion people and assume that their target group is, well, Earth,  That may be close to the case now, but remember that when they first launched, their service was open — only, open — to Harvard students.  Mark Zuckerberg’s target group was the group he knew best: his own fellow students in Cambridge.  Only after getting traction with them did they expand their target group — but they still did so methodically.  Next came students at a few more elite universities.  Then all college students.  Then *gasp* came adults.  But if Zuckerberg had initially identified his target group as ‘every human being with internet’ Facebook never could have properly served its initial target group and would have been a mediocre service perhaps serving many, but serving none well.

If that pressure is there for a dotcom startup, imagine the pressure on a social entrepreneur delivering a product or service with the aims of creating new futures for a community.  When it comes to community benefit organizations, it’s seductive to want to expand to anyone and everyone who could benefit from your work.  Which is precisely why you, as the changemaker, need to make the difficult decision on who your core target group is and who is not.  What does it mean to be in your tribe?  

Questions to ask yourself

One question I often ask the social entrepreneurs I work with in thinking through this question is what would happen if their budget got cut in half.  They no longer would have the resources to work with the same number of constituents — how would they decide with whom they would still work?  What characteristics define that target group?  Is it the group with the most to gain from the product?  Is it the constituencies that the entrepreneur best understands because she is part of that tribe?  Is it people only in a certain geography, or a certain age?  The answer to these questions depends on the values of of one’s organization — but what’s crucial is leaning into these questions, as challenging as they might be.

Target Groups and Social Entrepreneurship

I learned this personally with StartSomeGood, the crowdfunding site for changemakers I co-founded.  When we started, we naively defined our target group as: “Everyone!  Everyone who cares about social change!”  After all, our service helps people start good, and who doesn’t like starting good?  Target users? 7 Billion!  But when we launched, we quickly learned a number of lessons on focus — if we try to reach everyone, we end up reaching no one.  For our messages to resonate, and our product to fit the needs of someone, there has to actually be a ‘someone.’  As a result, we narrowed our approach to those who were starting projects, rather than supporting projects.  Then we focused in even further, identifying the exact type of social entrepreneurs we were best suited to support.  Our target group shrunk from a couple billion possible users to perhaps in the tens of thousands.  But once we did that, we could actually have confidence in being able to reach and successfully support our true target group.

Make no doubt, there is pressure from funders, investors, partners and boards to scale and support larger and larger target groups.  I observed the significance of focusing on one’s core target group while working at BUILD — an education non-profit which ‘ignites the potential of youth in under-resourced communities and equips them for high school, college and career success’ through teaching entrepreneurship.  BUILD goes in to the most under-resourced schools in the US to provide an experience-based curriculum.  But they don’t just define their target group as any student at those schools; they are hyper-focused on their opportunity for highest impact by working with students at the greatest at risk of dropping out.  It’s tempting to want to work with a broader section of students — including those that would otherwise be college bound — as it would help create even better success metrics.  But I really respect BUILD staying true to its core, supporting those students that would not otherwise have any similar support.  It’s a hard decision to make — saying who is and who is not part of a target group — but a great changemaker must be prepared to focus their organization just like BUILD does.

It’s totally fine to have a secondary target group — for instance if your target group is a particular subset of children, then it may make sense to have a secondary group be teachers (and selecting a secondary target group requires the same rigor as identifying a primary one).  But resist the temptation to go too broad and recognize the benefits that come from having a focused target group.  Are you working with newly arrived immigrants? Great!  Let’s figure out if it’s immigrants from a particular country, in which case you can increase your outreach by focusing on a specific language, or a specific community center.  Are you working to create the best tutoring program in the country?  Great, but let’s start by figuring out what you are teaching and to whom — after all your organization, marketing, and impact measurements are vastly different if you are teaching science to 8 year olds, or poetry to 16 year olds.

 In Tribes, Seth Godin Reminds us:

“Great leaders don't try to please everyone. Great leaders don't water down their message in order to make the tribe a bit bigger. Instead, they realize that a motivated, connected tribe in the midst of a movement is far more powerful than a larger group could ever be.” 

So, now it’s time for you to reflect on your target group, your tribe.  Once you figure out who they are (and who they are not), then — and only then — can you go about supporting and working with your tribe in the best possible way.