Ellie Burke
Ellie Burke
4 min
Image of students working on a project

Is a Social Impact Incubator Right for You?

Social entrepreneurs come up with needed solutions in order to change the world for the better. But the difference between a real solution and a simple idea is informed, strategic action. In order to truly solve a social problem, an entrepreneur needs more than their ideas—they need the right information, skills, and tools to execute them.

Luckily, there are several different types of educational social entrepreneurship programs, such as incubators and accelerators, that provide the network, instruments, and resources necessary to take an idea from a concept to a reality.

Here’s everything you need to know about these programs in order to determine if a social impact incubator experience is right for you.

Why Are Social Impact Incubators Important?

Nearly nine out 10 of startups fail, and 42 percent of them go under because they’re selling something that consumers don’t actually want. The harsh reality of launching and running an initiative is that in order to succeed, and to therefore make a difference, you need so much more than an idea and passion.

To get a better idea of the challenges social entrepreneurs experience and how educational programs can help take problem-solvers to the next level, we spoke with Clara Brenner, the CEO and Co-Founder of Tumml—an organization that empowers entrepreneurs to solve urban problems—at the 2016 Collaborative + Classy Awards.

Entrepreneurs experience all different types of downs. It could be trouble raising money, it could be problems with your team, it could be challenges with your product. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but entrepreneurs should know that it’s going to happen at some point and it’s just really important to be prepared from a business perspective, but also a psychological perspective and understand that this is normal.

Not only should startups prepare for these problems, Clara also stressed that social entrepreneurs must realize how little the problems they experience differ from those that for-profit entrepreneurs face.

So often we hear of mission-driven entrepreneurs describe themselves as special or unique or different than traditional startups, and really they are not. All investors—I don’t care how mission-oriented they are—want to know that their money is being put to good use and that those entrepreneurs are going to be good stewards of that capital.

So we try to emphasize with our entrepreneurs at Tumml that focusing on a business model is not a detraction from the work that they are doing, it is an essential part of what they are doing and especially as they fundraise, they need to communicate that very clearly.

What to Expect

To prepare entrepreneurs for the myriad of problems they might come up against and help them test and create strategic business models, social impact incubators and accelerators offer an intense, focused education that typically spans from a couple of weeks, to a few months, to two years. Within this timeframe, participants either pay or receive a scholarship to access things like:

  • Consultants and expert advice
  • Services such as design
  • Networking opportunities
  • Mentorship programs
  • A workspace
  • Educational classes
  • Potential funding

The Echoing Green Fellowship, for example, is a highly competitive two-year program that awards a stipend and health insurance in addition to benefits like those listed above. Initiatives born from their program include Teach for America, One Acre Fund, and many more.

Who Should Apply

Another exciting example of an accelerator program is the Schwartz Family Penn Impact Lab at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice. This program encourages students at the university (undergraduate or graduate) who are “social impact dreamers” to apply to their five-month program.

They recommend individuals apply to their program if they have an entrepreneurial spirit and a problem to solve, but are unsure of where to begin.

Echoing Green similarly describes the fellows of their two-year program as, “the innovators, instigators, pioneers, and rebels that reject the status quo and drive positive social change all over the world.”

Entrepreneurs can also seek out programs that support startup ideas of a specific nature. Tumml, for example, recruits “startups advancing renewable resource adoption and efficiency in urban areas.”

How to Put Your Best Foot Forward

After you’ve identified the social problem you’d like to address and discovered a potential creative solution, one of your next steps will be to surround yourself with people who can help you flesh out your idea and create a business model.

Whether you are working in the nonprofit space or the for-profit space, the people you surround yourself with are really going to make or break your business. Before you even begin to think about the problem at hand you need to think about the team.

During the application process, you’ll need to be able to articulate several things, including:

  • The problem
  •  The source of the problem
  • Your proposed solution
  • Evidence supporting your solution’s potential
  • Your personal connection to the cause
  • The steps you’ve taken to date
  • What personality traits make you well-equipped to execute your plan
  • The potential to scale the solution for large impact
  • The feasibility of your proposed solution

Programs to Check Out

Not all programs will offer the right combination of resources and the environment your idea might need to flourish. Check out the following programs for entrepreneurs as you research and select the right program for you.


As you prepare to participate in a social impact incubator program, we recommend that you create a business plan to help think through your idea. Download our guide on How to Create a Successful Year-Round Fundraising Strategy to get started on the business-side of your social impact solution.


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