Decide on an Approach

For this step you will need:


If your problem was easy to solve, someone else would have figured out a solution by now. So what’s your big idea about how to do things better?

Some social entrepreneurs make a mistake here. They rush ahead with the first idea that comes to mind, without exploring other solutions to the problem. The end result? Little impact despite great intentions.

Take the time you need to find the right approach to solving your social problem.

Watch the video to learn key concepts that can help guide you to a solution.

Explore Your Options

There are four general approaches you can take to solve a social problem. Note that many of them require beneficiaries or other stakeholders to change their behavior.





Learn from Others

It is likely that other people have tried to solve the problem before you. To get started in considering what approach to take, you can do online research and talk to people who are concerned with the same problem and who have already tried to solve it.

Here are some ways that others can help you navigate the path to social change:

Evaluate Your Options

Here’s a list of questions to help you evaluate possible approaches to addressing a problem.

How likely will the solution meet the needs of your beneficiaries? This is a good time to double-check that your ultimate outcome aligns with the beneficiaries’ real needs and that your approach is likely to meet those needs.

What resources will the solution require? Are they within your capacity acting alone or with others? Take time to consider staffing needs, operating constraints, and the amount of money and time required. Are there organizations working on the same problem that you might collaborate with? Does the solution take advantage of resources and expertise that you already have? If you don’t have the resources you need, can you realistically get them?

How well does the solution fit your values, risk tolerance, and expertise? Are you and your board, staff, and funders comfortable with your proposed approach and its risks? Do you want to achieve relatively certain short-term results, or are you content with a longer timeframe?

How likely is the solution to succeed? Consider what has worked before, and how your approach is similar or different. Consider the situation on the ground where you want to work. This includes the broader operating environment, the political situation, and the practical realities.

Are the benefits of the solution worth the costs you will pay? Consider your anticipated impact compared to the money, time, and other resources the solution will require. Do a cost benefit analysis.

Evaluate Risk and Return

All social entrepreneurs and policymakers want their strategies to succeed. So when choosing between a low-risk project—one with a high likelihood of success—and one that is risky and has a good chance of failing, wouldn’t you choose the lower risk option?

Not necessarily. What if the risky strategy, if it succeeds, can improve the lives of thousands of people, but the safe approach will at best help hundreds?

The tradeoff between risk and return is familiar in the financial world. U.S. Treasury Bonds are as safe as any investment can be, but they pay very little interest. Venture capital investments are incredibly risky. Many fail. But when they succeed, the returns can be huge.

The tradeoff is not fundamentally different for social strategies. Consider two different approaches to reducing the problem of opioid usage. An opioid recovery program designed to change one person’s behavior at a time is relatively low-risk once its kinks are worked out. Class action litigation against the pharmacies that distribute opioids could have far-reaching consequences, but victory is hardly assured.

The Covid-19 pandemic provides another example: Social distancing and wearing masks are effective means of containing the pandemic (low risk). But they require a degree of self-discipline and attention to other people’s health that are difficult to maintain, with many lives lost as a consequence (low return). Developing a vaccine is a high-risk enterprise and most efforts to do so will fail. But if and when an effective vaccine is developed, it will save many millions of lives (high return).

Efforts to change public policy and people’s mindsets on major issues face huge uphill battles, and even successes can be fragile. Here are two examples:

The basic concept for any risky decision—whether in public policy, finance, or social problem solving—is expected value: the benefit if the program or policy succeeds, discounted by the likelihood of success. It is described in this formula:

Expected value = benefit  ✕  likelihood of success

In sum, what justifies putting your resources into a strategy that is more likely to fail than succeed is the magnitude of the payoff if it does succeed. But people have different risk tolerances. While some social entrepreneurs and their funders may be willing to pursue high-risk strategies, others may prefer programs whose outcomes are relatively secure and predictable even if they don’t have the large potential upside of riskier strategies. 

Jordan's Journey

Let’s check in with Jordan to see what approaches she’s considering and what criteria she’ll use to evaluate her options.

Lessons in Change

Your view of how to solve the problem will expand as you consider different approaches. You may discover solutions that you’ve never considered, and you may learn from experts who can suggest ways to improve on an existing approach.

Learning about what has, and has not, worked in the past

As you learn what has and has not worked from online research and interviews, consider how differences in your target population or the circumstances of your program might affect whether or not those approaches would work in your situation.


It takes time to decide on an approach. You’ll want to consider which of your options is most likely to achieve the best outcome for the most people.

Ultimately, it’s critical that your approach: