Start where you are (with what you’ve got).

Plans are important frameworks for overall direction and strategy – but, as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact with the customer…

So we are really talking about culture here: that people within an organisation feel the ability to spot, develop and pursue opportunities (in line with the mission), to take and be comfortable with risk (and reward), to be creative and problem-solve, to be flexible and responsive in their approach. – Nick Temple, Social Enterprise UK

Some of us are prone to making big plans and then not knowing where to begin while others plod along without knowing exactly why or where they’re headed. Neither approach serves us very well. But “starting where you are” is actually very challenging.

Part of the reason it’s so challenging, I think, is that there often isn’t much to work with at the beginning when a social enterprise is not much more than a powerful feeling that something needs doing that either isn’t being done or isn’t being done well enough.

But somtimes, we have more to work with than we realize. For example, I had a very nice experience this past week when a colleague visited my new enterprise work site. As I explained my hopes for the project, I found myself focusing on the complications, obstacles in the way of getting to the bigger vision. After I finally exhauted myself, he just smiled and said, Look around you, you are not just occupying this space but “activating” it already. You’re doing just fine. Keep going.

I had to admit then that a lot has been happening. There’s movement every day. It may be tiny increments and not always be tangible but things like conversations that spark insight into your purpose or a new take on how you’re doing things, or meeting new people who may turn into essential supporters, allies or partners down the road are a vital part of any business’s development.

Resources are generally thin at the beginning of any project. To build them up, you need more than good ideas and good will. You need to look at what you’ve got like fuel. Good experience  directly relevant to your project establishes your qualifications. Do something with it. Anything, no matter how small. This will demonstrate not only what you want to do but also that you’re committed.

My friend showed me that it’s important to get your feet wet. If people see that you’ve waded in and haven’t found it either too cold or too hot, it doesn’t matter so much what you say or if you say it well or poorly. You don’t have to convince anybody. Your actions speak for themselves. And they’re likely to respond with what you need whether that’s for them to jump in with you, throw you a line or lend you a boat.



What is social entrepreneurship?

social enterprise word map
In the term “social enterprise,” what is the right balance between the “social” (mission) and “enterprise” (profit)?

A lot of people are saying that the key to sustainability in the non-profit sector is entrepreneurship. Centres for social innovation (CSIs) are popping up like mushrooms and “social enterprise” is all the buzz among granting agencies and foundations.

Closer examination reveals a lot of fuzziness around the term “social entreprise;” it means very different things to different people.

For some, entrepreneurship is a generic term associated with energy, innovation and commitment. It’s about drive and the ability to build organizations or even whole movements. Without doubt one has to be a go-getter to champion important causes, often swimming against the current, and have fantastic networking and organizational skills to make real progress. The Ashoka Foundation favours such an  all-encompassing approach, defining Susan B. Anthony as an entrepreneur for her tireless work establishing the equal rights of women.

For others however, entrepreneurship sticks closer to its business roots; it’s about applying business principles and methods to the social, non-profit, field. Charging admission, running a gift shop, perhaps creating your own products, are traditionally part of the non-profit mix of self-generated revenue, and the entrepreneurship here lies also in managing these functions in terms of cost and return, applying business measures and keeping them profitable, etc.

Yet another interpretation, sees social enterprises as businesses that have a distinctively social purpose. Examples on the Ashoka Foundation website include the Montessori school system and the first school for nurses set up by Mary Montessori and Florence Nightingale respectively. It is not necessary that they are profitable or profit-driven; they can be otherwise supported (by the state, individual or corporate patrons, etc.).

Yet for others, entrepreneurship is a precise business term. It means starting and running a business, an enterprise. The word “social” in “social entrepreneurship” means that the business is run by, within or under the umbrella of a social, non-profit, organization and revenues support the social mission of that organization. “Some have advocated restricting the term to founders of organizations that primarily rely on earned income – meaning income earned directly from paying consumers.” (ref: Wikipedia “social entrepreneurship”)

I favour the latter definition. To my way of thinking, the broader interpretations of “social entrepreneurship” confuse things. They seem to be intended more to make the non-profit sector sound better, more exciting, or more like the business community to which it must increasingly turn for support as state funding diminishes and the more traditional forms of patronage become obsolete.

Good things always  come from introducing new language, new ways of talking about what we do. The introduction of terminology like return on investment (ROI), profit and loss, measures and milestones brings clarity to non-profit management, while also making it easier to show potential partners, sponsors and supporters what it is that an organization does.

I hope to follow up this post with some good examples of some different kinds of social enterprises. In particular I will be looking for examples of real businesses operated by non-profits in order to generate income to supporting their social purpose.