If you are a sailor, you invest time, money, and passion in your boat. You may even build a community around this recreational hobby. You do not expect repayment. At the end of each day, however, you get paid with that which is immeasurable and intangible. You are paid in the beauty of the open water, the glory of nature, perhaps the company of friends, and the wind in the sails.
Similarly, social enterprise is not about making money, or making a name for yourself, or building an empire. It is about creating a better, more peaceful, more sustainable, more just world. The investment pays dividends that have no financial currency, but are of tremendous value.
I’ve heard that sailboats are frequently described by owners as “a hole in the water into which you throw money.” Sadly, a social entrepreneur will likely lose more money than they will make as they conceive, design, launch and build their business. Most effective social enterprises are never sold for a profit, nor are they franchised into a stream of future income. In fact, the majority of social enterprises do not make a profit year over year, and when they do, their very existence compels them to reinvest in maximizing their social mission.
However, social entrepreneurs—I argue—should not be motivated by money; they have to be motivated by the social change that they deem is necessary.
I was once approached by a social enterprise leader, asking if I’d like to invest in their fair trade business. He flat out told me, “This is a terrible financial investment.” However, he said that it is an investment in the right way to do business, where co-operative farmers (who I will never meet) will be able to live a sustainable, healthy life, a life where their children will get an education and opportunity. The investment has indeed been a financial loss, but an exceptionally lucrative social decision. The social enterprise has continued to operate (in part) because of my capital, and they continue to help individuals in a sustainable, meaningful way. I put money into justice, and my recompense is enormous.
I meet a lot of people who believe that social enterprise is cool. Some even call it innovative and new. However, social enterprise is actually an old concept with a new name. Early business was never about profit. It existed to allow entrepreneurs to make a living, providing goods and services that are needed for a community: food, haircuts, building materials, and the like. Business can be designed to cover costs, including salaries, and provide value without maximizing profit.
As we work to build purposeful and meaningful businesses, we ought to banish the thought that social enterprise is going to be a way to retire wealthy. As with the investment in a sailboat, we might enjoy retirement happy, satisfied, and full of calm knowing that our sacrifices are worth every penny we put into it.
The long-term payment for the social entrepreneur is a social wealth that is far beyond riches.