About a month ago a guy pitched me his idea in an elevator (yes, it actually happens). His idea was to ‘rescue a racehorse’. Actually, he wanted to not just rescue one racehorse, he wanted to rescue thousands of them. He explained to me what he saw as a problem of racehorses being slaughtered for the use of dog food. This problem by his accounts is not insignificant – one site quotes 18,000 Australia horses slaughtered each year.
The guy who pitched me the idea was a successful entrepreneur in his own right. Not having worked in the ‘social entrepreneurship’ space he wanted some quick advice as to what legal structure he should adopt. I replied along the lines of “these problems are often more complex than simple legal advice would warrant”. Despite his confidence in the solution, I managed to convince him that we should meet to discuss.
When we sat down the following week to explore the problem of racehorse slaughter, the complexity of the problem became more apparent. His original idea was to set up an organisation that allowed people to adopt racehorses or foals that were being sent to slaughter. He had a neat little funding model for it, and sales campaign idea that at first glance seemed like it would be attractive to people out in the market.
I asked him what other new problems this ‘rescuing’ might create. We came up with a list including:
- poor care provided by individuals or families ‘rescuing’ a horse without the money, experience, time or skill to provide ongoing care for it
- poor care through the overloading the veterinary industry with more horses than it has the capacity to respond to (often the horses are slaughtered due to existing health problems)
- inability to provide horses with enough feed
- increased contribution to climate change through methane production by the horses
By simply rescuing the racehorse through an adoption process, it seemed that it would potentially cause more problems, without getting to the heart of what was causing it. Just because it was a sellable idea and you would attract sponsorship and funding for it, doesn’t make it a good idea.
So we started to peel back the layers of the problem. He first explained how cheap it was to register a racehorse. There was no financial disincentive for breeders to consider how many horses they would breed. Breeding is timed perfectly for the race season, and they breed multiple horses a year like a factory as they know only a few will come out strong and fast enough to make the grade. As we explored this and went deeper and deeper into the problem, the underlying story was one of ‘greed gone made’.
Without disclosing where this entrepreneur got to with his idea, he basically abandoned his original idea. He has adopted two horses himself and is providing care to them. His new mission though is to not perpetuate the cycle and create new problems. His goal is to tackle the problem at its deepest cause.
This is an example of how our intentions for doing good do not always lead to the most rounded solution; his intentions were beautiful. It also shows how linear theories of change don’t always tackle the core of the problem, and can often create more problems in the process. In the least in establishing a theory of change it is important to get to the core of the problem.