social delta

Consulting and support for social enterprise in Canada

Finding your passion. Meh.

       At some time in the latter 20th century work became something that identifies who we are. The first question between strangers is often “So what do you do?”  The newest incarnation of this preoccupation with work as one’s purpose is now to aspire to have purposeful work. Expectations and aspirations in the changing workforce appear to tend towards some sort of cross between corporate billionaire and altruistic social worker.  Having your cake and eating it too.

I actually don’t believe in this new religion. I believe that work is an avocation; it is a job needed to pay the bills, put food on the table, and lubricate all the good things in life like health, education, community and love. It is perfectly reasonable to enjoy what you do, and in fact, I recommend making every effort to find joy in what you do, but don’t expect it to define you.

Work…whether as a social entrepreneur, a government bureaucrat, a corporate executive, a teacher, a builder, or a garbage collector…is likely going to be 10% amazing and 90% meh (and of that 90%, some significant percentage may be absolutely awful.)  If you are lucky, you might get to a 25/75 split…

Entrepreneurs are celebrated when they succeed, but 4 out of 5 fail. And those who do succeed often work 60-100 hours a week, and sometimes those hours are spent doing the most banal of jobs: issuing invoices, filing paperwork, responding to confusing client needs, managing your (social) media, waiting in an airport lounge, editing documents,  or even simply buying office supplies or other inputs for your business. For some, each of those tasks might be a gleeful challenge, but for most, they are just the nuts and bolts of business: necessary, unremarkable, obvious—or even punitive—when left undone, and less than inspiring.  Hardly finding one’s passion.

Remember that most value in our communities comes from the informal sector. Parenting, social gatherings, conversations, kindness to a neighbor or a stranger, reading, painting, crafting, cooking, exercise and other hobbies all help to create a strong community fabric and personal value, yet none of them are necessarily well compensated financially, if at all. As my grandfather said, meaning most often comes in simple actions, not grand gestures. For most of us, the informal sector will be where we will leave our mark and where we can reasonably expect to find/create personal joy and purpose.

Social enterprise offers a promise that business can—and should—be conducted with a greater community purpose. This is a lofty and laudable goal. But make no mistake, business is hard work, and some days you’ll have to really think hard about the positive vision you have for the future in order to motivate you to carry on with the present.

Don’t be fooled by a glib instruction to “find your passion” in your job. Instead, choose to work that is meaningful and beneficial to others, do it well, remain diligent, and reward your passions by having a strong work-life balance. I believe that we all have a responsibility to add value to our community, and I believe that social enterprise is one tool that can help us contribute. Nevertheless, never pretend that every daily task as an entrepreneur will fill you with joy and passion.

Be defined by who you want to be, not by solely by where you want to work.

Redefining Success

“What this pandemic shows…is that we can stop everything in a moment’s notice. I hope that rather than panic and try to rush back to normalcy, people will reflect on what it is we should leave behind, rather than resume.”

Journalist Sam Blum expressed this hope in a recent article in VOX magazine. It complements the UN aspirations to “Build Back Better, ” which is “an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental, and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.” (Read the full resource here)

Everyone–and let’s fully grasp what that means–everyone on the planet is affected by this pandemic. The numbers of deaths and illness may be small relative to the global population of over 7.8 billion people, but they are significant and scary. Every house and refugee camp, every person rich and poor, and every community urban and rural are having to adjust what they do, how they do it, and how to adapt to fear and uncertainty. This global response is unprecedented. Even the world wars were not fought on battlegrounds in every country. Previous global health scares in the last century (AIDS, SARS, MERS) seem to have had far less of an immediate impact on every family. The Spanish Flu had a similar reach…and far more deaths associated with it…but it existed at a time of limited global interactions and travel.

COVID-19 has made apparent the stark disparities in our world. Front line workers–from grocery clerks to health professionals to law enforcement–are forced to work and put themselves at risk for a greater good. The poor (whether relatively poor in developed countries or abjectly poor in other parts of the world) are at a sincere disadvantage as they simply can’t afford to not work, nor to socially isolate. Some ethnic groups and age groups have reportedly been disproportionately infected. Political figures are disguising their authoritarian tendencies behind the shield of “protecting their people” by applying emergency measures, or even boldy proclaiming power. Access to information, in spite of the ubiquitous Internet, has been confusing as conspiracy theory and mis-information is mixed seamlessly with the data-driven health edicts and expert, reasearched opinions.

For those who have health and wealth, the pandemic creates a mind game that might question one’s purpose. For those who are struggling to just get by, the pandemic is a frightening daily reminder of our own frailty and mortality.

Economies are opening up now; some are taking modest steps, other are more bold. Health professionals warn of a second wave of infection and each society or community must weigh the risks of infection against the necessity of employment and liberty.

Social Delta, with many others involved in helping to create just societies in which work has both individual purpose and community benefit, sees an opportunity to indeed “build back better.” Our businesses must be more focused on meeting the basic needs of citizens: health, education, nutrition, sustainability, justice and minimizing poverty.

Our global economy has had a heart attack and we collectively have the power to resuscitate it and nurse it back to good health.

There will undoubtedly be many changes in the way we define work, where we work, the value we place on family and social interactions and security. Indeed, if we redefine success such that we focus on what is good for us as individuals living in community, then the future after the fear may well be more humane, forgiving and sustainable.

Don’t go old, go ancient.

Chicago has a water problem. Sections of the city flood often, and even more often in recent decades as climate change has intensified rainstorms at the same time that the city’s concrete engineering marvels have created an impervious crust on the earth.

It was shocking to learn that Chicago is actually at the “top” of two water routes to the sea. Lake Michigan drains through the Great Lakes and into the St. Laurence River and empties into the North Atlantic. At the same time, a mere 10 kms from Chicago’s downtown core are the headwaters of the Des Plaines River, which flows southward and into the Illinois River which eventually joins the mighty Mississippi at St. Louis and eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Apparently, historic records indicate that before Chicago existed, it was a swampy area of land that frequently flooded, allowing for an actual waterway that bisected the continent. No wonder that they have water problems.

Why does this matter to social entrepreneurs?

Well, Chicago (and in fact many cities prone to flooding around the world) has spent billions of dollars on infrastructure projects like tunnels and reservoirs to, as one article put it, “bottle rainstorms.” However, there is a strong movement worldwide to think about ways to work symbiotically with nature rather than to fight to control it. “Sponge Cities” is a term that refers to urban designs that help absorb water. There are multiple ideas borrowed from the past: encourage the development of urban parks that can flood during monsoon seasons, use permeable pavements, plant trees that can soak up (and even clean) waste water, or develop rooftop and backyard gardens to absorb rain where it falls.

To the social entrepreneur, this spells opportunity. But don’t look to technology. This article highlights that we need fewer “smart cities” and more common sense in our design. Indeed, we should make “dumb cities” that use ancient techniques to work with nature to prevent catastrophe. Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto, states the notion clearly:

“For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas,” Saxe says.

So, if you are a social entrepreneur in spirit and you are looking for a product or service to sell that will significantly improve our co-existence with a changing climate, consider reviving and adapting old ideas. After all, there are literally BILLIONS of dollars available to prepare for and manage rainwater, flooding, sewage treatment and natural disasters.

Don’t consider creating an app to register the depth of the problem, consider (re)creating and selling a product that addresses the root causes.

Marketing for social change

I was reviewing my notes from 2007, and unearthed this short paragraph:

For social marketers intent on changing individual behavior and the opinions that guide behaviors, we can—and must—apply new thinking. Simply trying to project a new opinion will be futile. We must identify the accepted opinions in order to identify a lubricant to merge the new idea into the “flywheel” of old opinions. Indeed, to help promote social change, we must not only convey the message, but also provide the assistance to help people reconcile their own opinions (beliefs, actions, ideals) with the new.

Social marketing is a related cousin to social enterprise, of course. Where social enterprise is a business designed to create positive social change, social marketing is the use of commercial marketing techniques to create social change.

As such, this recalled note has direct relevance to all social entrepreneurs. Indeed Social Delta has worked with many clients to adjust their marketing strategy to ensure that they don’t only “push” messages to their target audiences, but that they learn more about their audience before defining their key messages.

The notion of a “flywheel of old opinions” is as pertinent today as ever it was. We all live with a sustained set of rote actions, cultural traditions, family learning, and resistance to change. There is inertia to these beliefs, and in order for a new idea to take root, social entrepreneurs need not fight against that inertia, but rather lubricate the insertion of the new idea into the old.

We need to have the ability to let off the clutch slowly to merge the new idea with the speed of the lives of our audience.

Making the circular economy economical

We waste a lot in our society.

Perhaps during this time of social isolation you are starting to realize how much we waste. Wasted food. Wasted plastics. Wasted clothing.

The market economy has evolved such that for many products it costs more to fix them than to buy a new one. (yes, I’m talking about you, my electric kettle) It seems that everything that is old, then, is discarded. This is a ridiculous paradigm. A religion of waste.

But there are awesome ideas that are growing as we increasingly acknowledge the old adage that one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure.

Of course, the venerable thrift store has been at the forefront of the retail circular economy for generations; they accept unwanted clothing, magazines, furniture, medical goods, and with a bit of sorting, re-sell (typically) at a modest price anything that seems like it could be sold.

Leading lights in the growing circular economy.

Unbuilders is a company in British Columbia that will unbuild your home. They reclaim everything, including the old growth timbers that were used wantonly at the turn of the 20th century as the forests of BC were cut down to create the buildings of Vancouver. There is money in those timbers, but instead of helicopter logging to get to new (old) forests, they are simply taking the time to remove the nails from wood that has been stored in the walls, rafters, flooring and fixtures of a house for the last 50, 60 or 100 years.

Tool Libraries are showing up across the country. Ottawa, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, St. John, St. John’s, and so many more places have active tool libraries. The principle concept is that tools can be borrowed like books. Less buying, more sharing. However, the ethos that drives the people who are creating tool libraries is also creating repair cafes, expert coaching on repair and up cycling, and strong commitments to repairing, or taking apart and recycling old tools.

In Ottawa, STRIDE accepts donations of used medical equipment. They have a team of experts to repair, rebuild, recondition and clean the wheelchairs (both manual and electric), the medical beds, the walkers, and the many assisting devices that are built to last far longer than our frail bodies will. These vital tools for health are then made available at a fraction of the price of new.

What should we expect?

The next logical step is for every business to start building products (homes, tools, cars, food packaging, clothing, etc) with the intent that they can be easily “unbuilt” and that the materials can be reclaimed, reused, repurposed. It is happening in some cases, but it needs to happen more.

Human have the creativity to create amazing products, but even the most ingenious rarely consider the full life cycle of every component part.

Everything should be built so that they can become the inputs for future goods. Why cut down more trees, mine more minerals, or create more polymers when we can conceivably create an ecosystem where any of those inputs can be used multiple times?

What can you do?

If you are an aspiring social entrepreneur, consider looking for waste in our society and design a business around that waste as the principle input into your product. And then…try to design your product so that when it has served its function, it can be easily “unbuilt” to become someone else’s treasure.

Ottawa Social Enterprise gives you a chance to celebrate healthcare workers

In the midst of this unprecedented global pandemic, our healthcare workers are heroes. As most of us are quarantining and cooped up in our homes, healthcare workers are on the front lines and risking their lives every single day in order to save the lives of others. So the Ottawa-based social enterprise EcoEquitable decided to find some small way to thank them for everything that they do.

As it turns out, wearing a surgical mask all day every day is hard on your ears. It becomes incredibly painful. That’s the daily reality of the people who are dedicating themselves to helping others. In order to show thanks in some small way, EcoEquitable created a solution—a headband with buttons on it that healthcare workers can hook the mask onto.

EcoEquitable wants to create thousands of these headbands and send them to as many healthcare workers as possible. They will begin with Ottawa hospitals and health facilities, then Ontario, and then all of Canada.

Each mask requires $10 of materials and labour, and they have launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to support their work. As a supporter of social enterprises using their skills and abilities for good, Social Delta is pleased to feature this effort. I have just made a modest contribution, and I encourage everyone to do the same, if you can afford to, by visiting their crowdfunding page.

EcoEquitable is a dynamic, women-led charity and social enterprise based in Ottawa. They employ immigrant and marginalized women to transform discarded and recycled fabrics by sewing them into beautiful things like conference bags and corporate gifts. They transform materials, people, situations, environments, perspectives, and the world.

As they write: “We are women crafting a better story.” Social enterprises are constantly providing social value; Social Delta applauds them for stepping up to help in these difficult times. Please support their effort.

Strategies for social enterprises to survive social distancing

Every business is struggling now under the recommendations (and requirements) for people to stay home and not be in public gathering places, retail locations or restaurants and bars.

Here are 7 suggested activities for your social enterprise, to make good use of this time in order to strengthen your business in the future.

To be clear, it is clear that this is not business as usual. Money is tight. Priorities may be changing. Families are in varying degrees of crisis and need. Clients are scared. Entrepreneurs are doubting their futures. Beneficiaries are in greater need than ever. These following recommendations are not a magic solution—if only there was one—but try to take from this list some ideas that fit within your context.

Build customer relationships. Now is a good time to build relationships with your customers and stakeholders. We should do this at all times, of course, but when we can’t meet face to face, there is an unusual opportunity to reach out to get to know your customers better. Here are a few approaches to consider:

  • Ask them how they are doing, and what your business can do to help them?
  • Provide incentives for online shopping, pre-ordering, or referring a friend.
  • Re-confirm the information you have about them (their preferred email, a new phone number, product preferences, etc)
  • Invite them to answer a survey (or attend a video chat) to share what they value most about your products or services.
  • Share with them a good news story about how their past support has provided something of value to a beneficiary of your social enterprise.

Be careful with the content of your outreach, however. Many of us have received emails from every company for which we have a loyalty card or an account telling us their policy on COVID. Frankly, everyone’s policy is the same (give or take) and these efforts at communication are very one-sided. Do I really care what my preferred car rental company’s policy is? Or how the opening hours of the local pharmacy are changing? If we wanted to know this (because we needed to rent a car or pick up a prescription)…we would simply visit their website, or ask them by phone.

Re-visit your business plan. Don’t revise it based upon the pandemic, simply take this time to go back to your original assumptions, do some analysis of how your targets have been met or not met in the last year(s), review the past effectiveness of your strategic marketing channels, etc. Of course, it might also be prudent to look at your risk management strategy (of course you had one in your business plan, right?) and maybe consider what you might include going forward now that you are in the middle of a risky business environment. (What are you learning that would inform your future resilience?). Write down you hypothesis based upon what you know. You can check back in a few months to confirm your assumptions as the market re-calibrates.

Offer your services. You are a social enterprise. You are therefore creating social value at a time when social value is most needed. If your service helps people, make it available. If your revenue helps to provide benefits to those in need, ask people to buy your product/service so that you can help more people (ie double down on communicating your social value proposition to clients). If you can afford to, give away your product/service/time to help others manage through the crisis. This is not about marketing, but about increasing your social impact (and that is what you are in business to do, right?). Oh, as a happy by-product, people will know more about your business, which may help future marketing, but for now, focus on creating social value.

Do (free) online promotions: This is the time to offer a webinar, or create valuable downloadable content, or host a zoom call of your key clients.  It may seem counter intuitive if you are losing money to offer free online content, but remember that by offering up something that is at no cost, but can be of benefit to your audience can help with future sales, or at the least can demonstrate your social commitment while showcasing your expertise or product.

Create (or improve) that online storefront:  Your “to do” list probably has included some reference to creating or strengthening your online sales capacity for some time. It is part of your business plan that you might not have got to yet.  Well, today is the day. Start investing in the infrastructure to sell your products or services online. Create a virtual storefront. Set up a Paypal account. Ensure that you are able to fulfill online orders promptly and accurately. Link your online ordering system with your customer relationship management software (or your Excel spreadsheet, or your paper files…depending on the maturity of your office record keeping systems).  This may cost you money to set up (at a time when money might be tight) but it is a necessary investment in future growth…and very likely will help you recover losses is this pandemic scare lasts for any length of time.

Limit your costs. This sounds obvious—and somewhat counterintuitive after some of the recommendations above—but wherever possible, reduce your variable costs and try to negotiate lower fixed costs (or defer them). Don’t keep your staff hired just to make a point if it is going to harm the long term sustainability of your business. (There are—so far—more cash benefits from government for individuals than there are for small businesses) Don’t place that huge supply order unless you absolutely need it to meet market demand. Negotiate better terms with your financial partners on outstanding loans. Ask for longer payment terms on outstanding invoices. (your clients may be asking you for the same if you are selling business to business)

Apply for relief. There are several programs and promotions being offered to support small businesses. These are changing each day, but research grants, low interest loans, tax breaks and other policies that may apply to your business.

Key Gov’t supports are summarized and linked here: (bookmark this link and check back frequently, as the programs keep changing as we learn more)

https://www.canada.ca/en/department-finance/economic-response-plan.html

Check with your financial institution about Accessing interest free loans (up to $40K until Dec 2022) through the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA). Up to 25% of this loan is forgivable in certain conditions.

And a bonus one: (thank you for reading to the end!)

Look after yourself. Of course you are social distancing, or placing yourself in isolation if you are not feeling well. But remember to eat well, get moderate exercise, sleep, listen to your favorite music with your eyes closed, limit your intake of frenetic news updates…whatever you need to stay physically and emotionally healthy.

The restrictions on our lives and businesses, and the inevitable new landscape in the economy in the coming months will need us to remain positive, balanced, mindful and patient.

Don’t let the worry lead to a feeling of despair. Stay connected with friends, clients, beneficiaries, and family in whatever way you can to bolster your spirits and your resolve to remain in business for social improvement. 

The effectiveness of your social enterprise will rely on your ability to remain committed, focused, and diligent in the months ahead.

The peril of social entrepreneurship

Even the most potent idea will be watered down to nothing if you put it in a turbulent sea.

Social Delta is in the business of helping organizations and individuals create business solutions to social problems. We believe in social entrepreneurship as one possible, powerful tool to sustainably create change. But we don’t believe in fads nor do we believe that social change happens because one person thinks that they have developed a quick fix.

Increasingly, we meet and work with young people (ages 14-40) wanting to become social entrepreneurs out of a sense of disenfranchisement in the free market economy, buffeted about by political fictions and misinformation, and feeling either beaten or inspired by their perception of the world going off the rails.

When we work with these new, or aspiring, social entrepreneurs, we want them to grasp a few basic concepts before they launch into their dream career:

  1. Be ready to work harder than ever. Social entrepreneurship is hard work and 99% of the time has very little glamor. Starting and maintaining any business is hard, but starting and maintaining a business with a non-negotiable social bottom line is very hard work.
  2. You are not the solution. Social change can be catalysed by individuals, but it is created by many people, often working in an imperfect cauldron of partnership, competition and collaboration.
  3. Anything you can think of has (likely) been thought of before. Our best piece of advice for new social entrepreneurs is: study what others have done and are doing to address the social concern that is the foundation of your business. It is shocking what an internet search will reveal. Years of study and learning about the issues and the root causes of the social problem are often necessary for you to truly understand why the issue is so hard to solve. Sometimes it is better–as in more effective–to join and existing team of passionate social actors than to create your own business.
  4. Be prepared for the long haul. An app will not solve plastic waste problems. A year of selling coffee will not save a youth at risk from addictions. A single day hack-a-thon (sic) will not solve poverty in your community. Intractable social problems are called intractable for a reason: they often have no quick or easy solution. If you are choosing a career in social enterprise, you will more than likely need to devote multiple years (perhaps a lifetime) to realize the change you envision. We live in a world motivated by expediency, but social change of any sort doesn’t happen overnight…even with a business mindset.
  5. Don’t be fooled by success stories. Every social enterprise is on the knife edge of survival, and success is both a relative term, and a difficult status to maintain. Rather than lauding the successes of contemporaries, learn from their daily challenges and seek to maximize your own social impact.
  6. Measure what you are doing. From day one, set measurable social goals and evaluate if you are doing the best you can to address the social problem that inspires your business. Measurement has to include both business indicators like sales or inventory levels, but more important is to set social goals and measure if you are getting close to them. If not, you’ll likely need to change your operational (business) decisions to ensure that your social mission is, in fact, being served best.

We recommend that every new social entrepreneur read a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article entitled “Tackling Heropreneurship.” The author expresses concern that social enterprise is becoming so fashionable that it is—like a potent idea in a turbulent sea—being watered down by those who want fame, fortune and a better world crafted by their own hands.

Building a social enterprise requires a balance of egotism and altruism. You need to be self-confident, committed, and something of an idealist. However, at the same time, you need to be humble, patient, collaborative and willing to rely on the efforts of others.

Social entrepreneurship should be considered less of a career and more of a calling, and in our experience, academic institutions, media, government and intermediary organizations are increasingly spouting that entrepreneurship is THE new tool for solving social problems. As a result, many of our most idealistic young colleagues are not fully understanding the social fabric that needs to be changed before they embark on their personal entrepreneurial journey to change it.

Social Delta provides Investment Readiness Program (IRP) consulting

The Government of Canada has launched the Investment Readiness Program, which provides non-repayable financing (also known as grants!) of between $10,000 and $100,000 to help social purpose businesses grow.

This is a landmark commitment to social finance and investing in the social economy of Canada by the federal government. All social enterprises–both new and seasoned–should learn more about this program in order to apply for the grants to build their capacity to be ready to accept social investments (loans, share capital) in order to grow their business, and generate greater positive social impact in our communities.

For more than a decade, Social Delta has been providing the type of consulting that is eligible for funding under this program. Contact us to discuss how we can help you access and effectively use these newly available funds to start or scale your social enterprise.

The IRP is available for social enterprises and social purpose organizations regardless of how they’ve been incorporated. Non-profits, co-operatives, and private sector businesses with a social mission are all eligible. If you are in business (or want to be in business) to create social value, this program can help you kick start your mission based company. There a five organizations administering the grant applications and one of those organizations, the Community Foundations of Canada, offers a very useful FAQ document that can be downloaded here.

This is not a grant to cover your operational expenses. However, it is money that is available to help you create a strategic approach to develop and fulfill the demand for your products and services. Business planning, marketing, organizational readiness, market research, and even purchasing assets necessary to fulfill contracts are all eligible expenses.

Social Delta is experienced, having worked with more than 400 social enterprises and social entrepreneurs across the country. We help with early stage creative thinking, professional market research, finding sources of start up funds, building effective and practical operational business plans, and scale social enterprises by increasing sales and reach.

We offer a complimentary 45 minute confidential consultation to discuss your business, and to listen to how we can help you create or grow a successful social enterprise. With the launch of the IRP, now there are funds available that can help us help you. To chat with us, book a free consultation online, or contact us here.

Six Steps to become a Knowledge Brokering Social Enterprise

Does your organization identify as one of the following?

  1. A Centre of Excellence,
  2. A knowledge hub,
  3. A network of practice,
  4. A think tank.

In today’s world, managing information is one of the biggest challenges. Great ideas, proven practices, academic research and innovative social ideas come from diverse sources. When good people have their heads down and are doing good work, silos naturally develop; sharing knowledge between the brains of the most progressive from all sectors has become a job in itself.

The problem is that nobody wants to pay for it.

Actually, that is not entirely true. Any rational person wants to see great ideas being shared. Groups like Ashoka, MaRS, or those offering collective workspace all know that when you mix ideas from different actors in different sectors you often get something new, and frequently something truly remarkable. Governments, large foundations and generous philanthropists in the last 15 years appear to like to invest in starting these “convening” activities and organizations.

However, if you are in the business of knowledge brokering, you are likely facing funding challenges after an initial 3-5 years in operation. (maybe 10 if you have a generous benefactor, or if you are housed at a university) There appears to be an expectation that once the infrastructure is built with the initial funding, then the knowledge sharing organization should have a sufficiently robust history, experience and brand to be able to generate revenues to sustain its staff and operations.

The problem is that financial sustainability is actually elusive.

Invariably, at the end of the funded start-up honeymoon is when I get a call. In the last two years or so, I’ve worked with several of these organizations. They each have exceptional staff committed to convening the best ideas and practices to address vital social issues: environment, child welfare, voluntarism, the threat of invasive species, human rights. Each has approached me wanting to sell their knowledge to those who need it most…the network of practitioners in their respective fields.

The problem is that practitioners can’t pay for it.

In each case, I’ve worked with my clients to document various options to generate revenues. There is an alarming pattern emerging, outlined in the following six mission-driven “opportunities” path:

  1. Membership: We first investigate new (or audit existing) membership approaches, fees, and benefits. For those knowledge brokers who charge membership fees, most are struggling to maintain those programs in an era of the members’ limited resources and the organizations’ escalating costs. Actually, in every case I’ve scrutinized, once the cost of maintaining, renewing, servicing and recruiting members has been accurately accounted for, these program have generated negative financial returns, thus being a tax on the organization. Admittedly, membership programs offer other benefits—gravitas needed for advocacy, accountability, strategic planning direction, board membership, and often a constituency—but these benefits are “soft” and frequently only indirectly help the bottom line, if at all.
  2. Conferences: The next revenue generating option suggested is invariably conferences and/or workshops. For organizations that have never run a conference, they are a lot of work, with very little financial reward. They typically rely on sponsorship to break even (ie fundraising work) and although they certainly support the knowledge brokering mission, they burn out staff, they take resources from other programming, and they can, in worst case scenarios, lose money. In fact, my observation in the last 10 years is that governments are not only providing less money for conferences as sponsors, but they are also sending fewer delegates to conferences as paying registrants. The conference business is slowly decaying except for private sector companies that use them to market new services and products.
  3. Books and White Papers: Many knowledge broker organizations are either housed at universities, or at least affiliated with university programs. It is natural, then, to revert back to the possibility of producing books, articles, guides, handbooks, or white papers or some other form of printed materials. This effort is only a minor step in logic from the traditional form of knowledge sharing, but the increasing costs of research, production, and distribution are rarely covered by the price paid for these items. The smaller the publication, the cheaper it is to create and share, but the less anyone is willing to pay for it, especially if distribution is in a PDF format online. Oh, and printed documents (and even online documents for download) need to be continually updated, and this cost of “maintaining” the resource is difficult to recoup in the price the community will pay for it.
  4. Training: the next logical step is to consider charging for training. Community based social change staff and volunteers who work daily to address social challenges can benefit from training on great techniques, tools and approaches. The knowledge broker organization—all that I’ve worked with—want to be able to give that information to everyone for free (to improve the social outcomes), but will reluctantly admit that they can’t give it away, they need to charge. A long discussion (and often primary research) ensues, only to discover that those who most want the training are the least able to pay for it. There is a last ditch effort to develop a prorated fee scale, hoping to use this technique of price discrimination to maintain accessibility for those who most need it. Financial viability is dicey with these sliding fee schedules, however.
  5. Webinars: (actually, this is really idea 4b, but they are a different product from standard in-person training…). The logical argument made for webinars is that if the costs of training can be lowered, then the price can be low enough for practitioners to afford. The problem is that good online training actually costs a lot to produce, and in spite of its apparent easy of delivery, it is very hard to sell. A simple “shot on my cell phone” video may work for YouTube, but it is not sufficient for fee-based training products. Sound, lighting, script, and editing are all required to create training folks *might* pay for. There is an irony in our modern world; folks believe that if it is online information, it SHOULD be free. Indeed, there is a lot of free information on every subject out there, and practitioners often prefer to spend an hour (or five) using a search engine to find an array of non-curated content than to spend $100 on a hour of top notch content. This may be ironic, but it is also frustrating if you are trying to generate revenue.
  6. Consulting: Inevitably, the discussion eventually evolves to consider bespoke consulting or a fee-for-service mentoring program. After all, knowledge broker organizations know things that other people don’t fully know, and that is a logical precondition for consulting or mentorship. After a raft of market research (both primary and secondary) for each of my past clients, in many cases it appears that there may be a “niche” non-profit consulting practice that might be of value. In most social issues there are individuals, corporations and governments who may need (read: are willing to pay for) curated information to make it possible for them to do their work. Short term consulting fees can make sense, especially if they remain relatively small contracts that might allow some purchasing autonomy for a branch office or a municipal bureaucrat.

After following this logical path, you may also consider the possibility of transforming your (currently funded) knowledge hub into a consulting business. However, be aware that consulting is a difficult way to make a living. Cash flow can be irregular, and balancing client timelines can be challenging. Many knowledge broker organizations realize that one way to minimize overhead costs is to create a roster of Associates; these Associates are experts, often drawn from the network of members or contributors, who can be called upon when needed, and then left off the payroll during slack consulting times.

If you are interested in learning more about how to structure a consulting social enterprise, please feel free to contact us for a free initial consultation.

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