The secrets of a successful social enterprise

Lauren Griffiths

Some people do business to make money. Others do it to enable social change.

If you fall into the second category, be warned that managing a social enterprise is no easy feat. Not only will you need to ensure financial viability of the business, but you’ll also carry the added pressure of being relied upon by people in need.

For those of you still reading with a sparkle in your eye, welcome to the world of social entrepreneurship.

Before you set off on your mission to build social capital and financial returns, first arm yourself with these nuggets of wisdom from those in the know.

Know your cause

In order to create change, you need to have an intimate understanding of the problem and your solution.

“Be clear about the difference you want to make,” says Andrew Gibbs, creative director at creative and social enterprise, Human Ventures. “Don't try to be everything to everyone.”

For Human Ventures, this means nurturing the creative development of marginalised communities through capacity building, workshops and employment opportunities. Its Creative Tracks program, for example, trains young people in creative industries skills, which are then used to tackle social challenges like substance abuse, mental health, education and intergenerational respect.

“We’re creating a sustainable enterprise that will continue to serve families in poverty for as long as poverty is a problem.”

Being clear on your end goal will help you to manage competing priorities and shift smoothly from a 'business' brain to a 'community' brain multiple times a day – which Gibbs says are two of the biggest challenges in operating a social enterprise.

Clear objectives can also act as measures of success, when success isn’t solely focused on profit.

For social business Pollinate Energy, these objectives are centred on sustainability. “Our aim is that in three years’ time we won't be dependent on grants and donations but will be able to fund our own operation,” says co-founder and chief sales officer Emma Colenbrander.

“We’re creating a sustainable enterprise that will continue to serve families in poverty for as long as poverty is a problem.”

Pollinate Energy’s social engagement is twofold: it empowers locals from low-income backgrounds in India’s urban slums to run their own door-to-door sales businesses, while also providing long-lasting solutions such as solar lights, improved cookstoves and water filters to improve health, safety and quality of life.

Remember it’s business

There is a risk of becoming fixated on your social cause and forgetting that you still need to treat a social enterprise as a business.

At the outset, ensure that you have a solid business plan in place, encompassing operations, marketing and finance. Be tough when you need to be and show strength to make the hard decisions. Know your priorities, and have the courage to stick to them.

Build a community

It’s important to assemble a supportive network around your social enterprise. Not only will you need a loyal pack of early adopters to offer feedback, but also industry peers to check in with.

Colenbrander says if there was one thing Pollinate may have done differently with hindsight, it would have been to reach out and collaborate with similar enterprises.

"Tap into the public’s empathy and compassion to build a strong connection to your brand."

“There are a number of organisations around the world distributing similar products to people in poverty, and there were a few areas where we reinvented the wheel,” she says. “In hindsight, we could have avoided this by talking to and working with partner organisations.”

When reaching out to early adopters, remember that the enterprise’s story and cause are crucial to its appeal. Gibbs says Human’s clients, for example, love that the enterprise’s profits are invested back into community programs. Tap into the public’s empathy and compassion to build a strong connection to your brand.

Be resourceful

Just like any business entrepreneur, you’ll need to be creative, disruptive and see possibilities where others would see roadblocks. This particularly applies to the areas of marketing and funding.

Colenbrander says her biggest fear when setting up Pollinate Energy was that the team wouldn't be able to secure the funding they needed to get the enterprise off the ground, or that they’d have to pool all of their resources into fundraising, which would detract from their ability to run the core business.

“But we were very creative about our revenue streams,” she says. “And setting up our fellowship programs enabled us to bring highly skilled resources into our organisation that we otherwise wouldn't have had access to.”

Get help

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” says Colenbrander. “Someone once said to me that young people wanting to start a business should ‘get as much help as they can while they’re still cute’ – and I think that’s great advice.

“Use your networks as much as you can, find yourself good mentors and reach out to people you’ve never met if you think they have something to offer you. You’ll be surprised at how much people want to help, especially if you’re pursuing a social cause.”

"Young people wanting to start a business should ‘get as much help as they can while they’re still cute."

Whether you’re in need of funding, publicity or advice around hazardous areas such as legal structure and tax, it pays to get expert guidance. Organisations such as Social Ventures Australia and School for Social Entrepreneurs Australia can help with learning programs, consulting services and mentorships.

Assemble a team

Colenbrander says one of the biggest lessons she’s learnt is that your team is your most important asset. “When you build a team, you have to first and foremost look for passion,” she says. “Technical skills can be learned, but you can't teach someone to get genuinely excited about what you're trying to do.”

Look for staff who have the same goals as you and embody an entrepreneurial spirit.

Stay agile

Gibbs says a common pitfall in social enterprise is trying to do too much. His advice? “Start small.” A small, manageable enterprise will help you to stay flexible and pivot when needed.

"A small, manageable enterprise will help you to stay flexible and pivot when needed."

Colenbrander agrees it’s important to be adaptable. “A big challenge [Pollinate Energy] faces is market variability. Cities across India are surprisingly diverse and we’ve needed to adapt our model in unexpected ways as we’ve expanded into new cities. This has reminded us how important it is for us to stay agile and not be afraid to try new things.”

Of course trying new things also puts you at risk of failure. But don’t be afraid to make mistakes and try to view challenges as temporary pit-stops on your journey to success. Build your social enterprise around a cause you believe deeply in, so that when the going gets tough you can tap into that passion and stay committed to the slog. 

Lauren Griffiths

Lauren Griffiths is a Queensland-based freelance writer who writes about marketing, media and entrepreneurship.

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