The world needs social enterprises to succeed. That might sound melodramatic, but our global challenges are serious, and social entrepreneurship is increasingly recognized as an important pathway to address these challenges.
I spend a lot of time traveling the globe mentoring social entrepreneurs, helping to train others as mentors, and attending and speaking at conferences on social entrepreneurship, impact investing, and innovation.
Whether I’m in Brazil or Ghana or India, I see certain threads that run through every successful social enterprise.
Here are five lessons learned during some of my recent travels that I hope will help aspiring social entrepreneurs everywhere—and those working with them.
1. Begin with passion for solving a real problem
Make no mistake, social entrepreneurship is not easy. It’s really hard, and some days it might feel impossible. Follow your passion—because that’s where the drive to persevere and thrive comes from.
Your passion will carry you through the difficult days.
But passion for what, exactly? Connect with a problem that you want to solve and that you believe you can address. The better “feel” you have for the product you’ll deliver and the market you’ll serve, the higher your probability of success.
Take it personally as well as seriously. For example, those of us in the United States might take seriously the threat of global climate change, but there’s no way we can take it as personally as the young woman I heard at a the Skoll World Forum in London earlier this year.
Selina Leem, an 18-year-old student and a citizen of the Marshall Islands, speaks simply and eloquently about how her nation is likely to disappear as ocean levels rise in the next few years. While not a social entrepreneur, she has become a powerful voice for the urgency to address global climate change. She demonstrates the kind of passion I’m talking about.
2. Listen to your customers
You know the old saying that the customer is always right? If you’re a social entrepreneur, you should really take that saying to heart.
Your customers (and future customers) will have answers beyond what you already know. They will likely also ask questions you haven’t considered.
Customers will provide you with a fuller perspective on your offerings.
While social entrepreneurs understandably focus deeply on the details of the products or services they offer, pay attention to broader considerations, as well. These can include everything from the kinds of product distribution and pricing that makes your offering attractive to customers, to subtle cultural or community attitudes and practices that might help or hinder acceptance of your products or services.
3. Think strategically about how to scale your social enterprise
Scaling a social enterprise can mean expanding your business to new geographic regions (scaling horizontally, in breadth) or expanding the range of offerings within your existing communities (scaling vertically, in depth).
In either case, don’t try to scale too early.
So many social entrepreneurs who are passionate about solving a problem feel like they need to do it quickly. Moving too fast can be a death knell for an organization.
As an example, if you want to get a medical clinic up and running, make sure you have the right services and pricing, and that you understand the needs of the customers you’ll serve. Only when your first clinic is operating well should you open a second one.
And don’t expect the second one to be identical to the first; I guarantee that you’ll discover new things with each new clinic. If all is still going well with your two locations, then consider opening a third.
When you see all three growing in success, increasing revenue, and customers, you might be ready to start scaling, at least into a similar environment. For instance, if your clinics are in urban areas, don’t try to start scaling into rural areas, because the dynamics will be totally different.
4. Don’t try to go it alone
Remember that no enterprise, social or otherwise, operates in isolation. Build a strong network to support your business.
Ask yourself: What partners could help me improve my offerings, or reach customers better, or operate more efficiently or effectively throughout the entire value chain?
You don’t need to do everything yourself.
Instead, select partners to help you succeed. Think about where you can find mentors to strengthen all your business skill sets, and who you can invite to join your board of directors or advisory board.
When establishing your board, especially in the early days, choose people who will roll up their sleeves and work with you. Don’t make the mistake of chasing big celebrity types. Even if you land them, they are unlikely to provide the support you need.
Think of your board as an extremely experienced, free resource. Just as you want the very best employees who will help you create huge impact, you want board members who will do the same.
Over time, as your enterprise evolves and becomes more mature, the role of the board will evolve, too—becoming more of a strategic and visioning partner, in addition to minding its fiduciary responsibilities
5. Be prepared and smart about fundraising
Become familiar with the range of fundraising options available to your business, from equity investments and grants to loans and crowdsourcing.
Calculate your justifiable ask with solid data and financial models to back it up. If you’re seeking investments, what is your exit strategy—or how do you plan to repay your investors?
Whatever form(s) of capital you decide to seek—such as grants, equity, or debt (loans)—be sure to choose funding partners that are aligned with both your financial and your social impact goals.
Helping social entrepreneurs thrive
Of course, there’s much more to successful social entrepreneurship than what I’ve outlined here. But when I presented these best practices at the O Melhor da Inovação (“The Best of Innovation”) conference in São Paulo earlier this year, the presenters that followed referred back to my presentation throughout the day.
That tells me that these points resonated and might not be self-evident.
My work with the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) at Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship exposes me daily to the positive impact that social enterprises can have in the world today. But they can achieve positive impact only if they succeed in their business goals. For all our sakes, let’s do whatever we can to help social entrepreneurs thrive.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Pamela Roussos is Senior Director, Global Social Benefit Institute, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. Pamela has worked with and for early-stage software companies as a business and marketing strategy leader, helping founders create, refine, and execute their business strategy and go-to-market plans. She also serves on the board of Pact, an international NGO that benefits communities by promoting healthy lifestyles, decent livelihoods, and sustainable natural resources; and as as board chair for Livelyhoods, an organization that creates jobs for youth in slums. Connect with @MillerSocEnt on Twitter.