3 Signs That It’s Time To Scale Your Social Venture

The CEO of Fair Trade USA talks about how his organization has expanded in size and impact–and how yours can do the same–by asking three simple questions.

3 Signs That It’s Time To Scale Your Social Venture
Geometric via Shutterstock

Every social venture has a mission. Mine is fair trade. I discovered it while working with rural coffee farmers in Nicaragua in the 1980s. During my 11 years in the country I learned about the hardships of agricultural farming, and what it really means to make ends meet. After struggling to cover the cost of production, these farmers had no money left over for the things that make a community strong and viable, like health care, education, clean water, and good roads. How is someone supposed to care about product quality and sound environmental practices when they can’t even put food on the table?


My personal mission became helping these farmers lift themselves out of poverty–not through charity, but through access to markets and their own hard work. This is why I launched Fair Trade USA in 1998–to begin developing a system of trade where farmers, companies, and shoppers alike are linked together by a common thread: their shared commitment to basic human dignity.

Fair Trade coffee in Indonesia (Photo credit: Bennett Wetch, Fair Trade USA)

It’s been 14 years since we opened our doors, and I’m deeply proud of the fact that we’ve helped farmers and workers earn more than $225 million in additional income through better prices, improved terms of trade, and standards that empower farmers and workers so they can do their work with pride. We’ve also expanded Fair Trade offerings beyond coffee to a diverse array of products like tea, spices, produce, sugar, cocoa, and even clothing. And we’re in the trenches every day educating consumers about how they can make a difference with their purchases.

I’m proud, yes, but not content. When you look at how far trade still has to go, our scope of work is actually quite small. We’ve reached a critical crossroads in our organizational development that so many other social ventures will face: the question of “can we do more?” It’s probably something you’ve thought about for years but haven’t had the bandwidth, infrastructure, or even the guts to acknowledge. Now here you are–on the verge of deciding whether to stay the course, let go, or move forward in a bold new way that challenges the confines of the vision that you created.

In 2011 we asked ourselves three simple questions to determine if it was in fact time to take a giant leap of faith. If you’re deciding whether or not to take your work to scale, please read on.

Is your venture making a big impact on a small population?

There may be thousands, even millions of people who could benefit from your ideas, passion, and mission. If you see that your venture is already making a huge difference in the lives of the people to whom you’ve dedicated your cause, but know that it could reach further, it’s time to take things to the next level. Whatever it is that lights the fire inside you, take a good look at who it is you’re here to serve, what kind of impact you are currently making, and where you might be willing to innovate to benefit more people.


At Fair Trade USA, we’ve been wrestling with this question for quite some time. Despite success in making a significant impact to more than 1.5 million farmers and workers, Fair Trade still reaches less than 1% of the world’s 2 billion people living in extreme poverty. We know we can do more.

That’s why we’re exploring how to include new farming groups in Fair Trade–a bold and somewhat controversial move within the movement. Historically, Fair Trade coffee certification has been reserved solely for small-scale farmers organized into cooperatives. We’re still deeply committed to the success of the co-op, but we also believe that Fair Trade has to work for more than 10% of the coffee farming population in order to have a significant impact on global poverty. So we set out to test our vision.

Fazenda Nossa Senhora de Fatima (FNSF), the first non-cooperative farm in our pilot program, is a 500-acre, 100% organic, family-owned coffee farm in Brazil. By innovating the model, we helped FNSF meet the rigorous standards, earn certification, and become the first-ever Fair Trade Certified coffee estate. Allegro Coffee Company, who already buys from the farm, purchased its first Fair Trade container, enabling the farm’s 110 workers to invest in dental and eye care. Some workers just received their very first pair of glasses. Says farm worker Maria Filha de Jesus, “I’ve never owned glasses before. It was becoming harder and harder to do my job because I couldn’t see well. Now that I have these eyeglasses, I’ll be able to continue working.”

We took a bold step to re-imagine who Fair Trade standards could apply to, and are seeing tangible impact from this decision.

Are people demanding more?

Surely you remember the days when you tirelessly knocked on doors and hit the phones promoting your idea to anyone who would listen. Now your mission has caught on to the point that your customers come to you and ask for new products or solutions. So what worked very well just a few years ago may be less effective now as your organization has to meet more demands, expectations, and changing marketplaces.


Today, more brands and retailers are demanding Fair Trade products and ingredients from a wider array of regions and grower types. Consumers want more Fair Trade products to choose from, and farmers are asking for more services, trainings, and better access to markets.

Recently the founders of Runa Tea asked for our help in finding a certification solution for guayusa, a tree leaf from the Ecuadorian Amazon. A group of indigenous small-scale farmers have been trying to earn Fair Trade certification for years, but were (like FNSF) ineligible because they weren’t a formal association. Yet again, our existing model was a roadblock to growing impact for farmers. By thinking outside the box and listening to the demands of both our producer and brand partners, we found a solution that was the perfect balance of rigor, flexibility, and impact. In choosing to evolve we increased our ability and willingness to respond to exciting new challenges, ones that can benefit a large number of people.

Can you scale your passion with your venture?

Your social venture is succeeding, and that moxie has carried you to the point where you now see encouraging and demonstrable results. Your passion, however, has to be just as strong as it was on day one. And that passion needs to be felt by your entire organization in order to inspire a collective vision that will fuel the next stage of your journey. Charting new waters has taken my passion to unforeseen heights, reminding me why I took that fateful flight to Nicaragua all those years ago. When you think about scaling your venture and doing more good for those you serve, does a spark ignite?

Over the past year, I’ve spent nearly all of my time on the road sharing our vision for the future and building a network of supporters. As it turns out, pivoting an existing business model takes just as much, if not more, effort that starting a new venture. Acknowledge the crossroads and give due diligence to the possibilities that lie in front of you. It’s often those who forge ahead against all odds that make the biggest change for good.

About the author

Paul Rice is President & CEO of Fair Trade USA. Since launching the Fair Trade Certified label in 1998, Paul has pushed to mainstream the Fair Trade movement and expand its impact on farming communities