These are times when starting or expanding a social enterprise is either a fantastic opportunity or an impossible folly.

There are unquestionably many challenges facing people and communities locally, nationally and globally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, and perhaps not entirely by coincidence, we see cracks and fissures appear in the social fabric: polarized and angry democracies, growing income disparities, wildly unsustainable consumerism, incredibly potent and punishing environmental changes, more xenophobia and irrational fear of “others,” increasing intolerance and racism, and a sincere lack of resources as our economies are (and have been) shown to be fragile constructs.

If social action is borne of injustice and and fomenting of the desire for positive change, then surely we must look at new ways of creating a just and sustainable society. Social enterprise is potential tool to make that happen, although starting any sort of business in a pandemic is risky; fantastic or folly, indeed.

I have many thoughts on how we can redesign business and movements and individual actions and responsibilities. However, I believe that my colleague and friend Vinod Rajesekaran, of Future of Good, expressed it brilliantly in his recent article “Stop idolizing your sector and demonizing another.” I quote from him directly:

Let’s build back better by asking different questions. When an organization or a project inspires you, don’t ask about their legal structure. Instead, look deeper and ask about their values, intentions, and actions. Look at the ratio between the highest and lowest paid workers, look at their carbon footprint, look at how diverse their leadership teams and boards are, look at how they act on reconciliation everyday, look at how well they include and give voice to their stakeholders, and follow the money — look at where they save and what they invest their money in. 

One of the first questions I get from aspiring social entrepreneurs is about how (and when) they should incorporate. I always tell them “form follows function” and that they should wait as long as possible before they formalize their social purpose in an organizational structure. Only once they’ve identified and lived by their values, intentions and actions (ie determined their function) will they know the best structure to support their work. In fact, once they’ve started their work in earnest, the form of their business is almost always determined for them.

We are, regrettably, stuck with largely antiquated legislation that enshrines for profit, co-operative, or non-profit structures, myths, and expections. However, we can–and must–push the parameters of each of these structures to create businesses that measurably improve social conditions, justice, fairness and protection of the environment.

In the coming years, we can, person by person, build back better.