social delta

Consulting and support for social enterprise in Canada

Tag: social change

The marketplace of social deficits

Most social enterprises start because an individual or an organization sees a problem in society—a social deficit—and they want to find a sustainable way to improve that deficit.   

Just as inventions historically have helped to address perceived personal needs—from the radio to the steam iron—so too are innovations required to address social deficits, and if those innovations can be commercialized, then they are fodder for a strong social enterprise.

In the last few years, I’ve met an increasing number of people—both seasoned and young—who want to pursue social enterprise as a meaningful career path. However, many haven’t necessarily taken into account the marketplace of social deficits. In the last decade or more, there are some clear, growing areas of need in our society for which a social enterprise might be the right tool.

Below is my quick list of the challenges facing our society; this list describes a fertile field for social enterprise development to start.

Ageing populations will create needs for new financial tools, intergenerational wealth transfer, housing, urban design, mobility and new methods of countering isolation in a world of technology, fading social structures (like the church) and greater longevity.

A diversified global citizenry requires new approaches to schooling, language and cultural training, housing and ways to address conflict.

New health care needs for chronic illnesses and afflictions, including diabetes, arthritis, depression, obesity. Even some of those diseases which were considered acute (and typically life threatening) such as cancer and heart disease are increasingly being considered chronic, as survivors may require ongoing supports to live well.

Our energy needs are extraordinary. With a technologically advancing society, all our lives are affected by available electricity and locomotion. Our shelter, our food, our lifestyle, and even our money are all perilously threatened if we loose power, or if energy costs spurred by limited supply and increasing demand become unaffordable.

Water and other environmental challenges are also looming concerns of the next generation. Clean water is an ecosystem requirement and a threatened resource as the population grows, and as our continued polluting contaminates the limited freshwater reserves on the planet.

Increases in gambling, poor diets and inactivity, violence (gang, domestic, and other abuse), and the (mis)use of both illegal and prescription drugs are requiring us to reconsider the way the society must address social behavioral problems.

Crime appears to be on the increase, although statistics prove otherwise. Of course, we need not be complacent, as preventing crime is worth our vigilence at the local, national, international, and even the metaphysical space of the internet. Identity theft, concerns of privacy and even fears of falling victim to fraud pervade our news, and thus our response to the world around us.

The nature of work is changing and this creates many social challenges. Increased wealth is not translating in to increased welfare. Communal workplaces, telecommuting, and decreases in manufacturing and skilled labour are affecting our communities and exacerbating wealth gaps.

It also appears that the next generation is losing purpose, faith and hope in the structures of past generations (marriage, work, universities, religious institutions, government, etc). 

Poverty and income inequality is also a global challenge. Our interdependent world means that poverty across the world will directly affect us all. Wars, famine, refugees, human rights abuses, and criminal activity are all reinforced by poverty, if not initiated by the curse of income inequality and injustice.

This list of social deficits should not drive us to despair. Statistically, global improvements to health, transportation, work, and international relations have enjoyed incredible gains over the last decades (“Factfullness” by Hans Rosling, will help reaffirm your faith in humanity).

Nevertheless, the traditional solutions to social deficits that have got us this far have often been direct interventions through the development of a new product or new service (or law!) by governments, non-profits, or private sector actors motivated by profits. However, the current multifaceted, systemic challenges are in need of more systemic solutions by engaging different sectors, different actors, new ideas, revised expectations, and new organizational structures.

Social enterprise is a tool—when done well—that can house systemic solutions that embody democratic (or collective) ownership, the focus of business thinking, the scale of the public sector and the compassion of the non profit and charitable world. By taking the best of all thinking, social enterprise is a vehicle to tackle both the new and intractable social deficits in our society.

Social entrepreneurs don’t just dabble in change.

For a good cause, wrongdoing is virtuous.

Publilius Syrus

I’m quite sure that this first century quote wasn’t about failing at a social enterprise, but it is worth taking the liberty now, in the 21st century, of reinterpreting this quote to mean that doing something incorrectly in pursuit of a social benefit is still a virtuous pursuit.

Or is it?

Social enterprise employs a business model to create positive social outcomes. It requires selling goods and services in pursuit of a “good cause,” seeking to change the world for the better. In the current heady discourse surrounding social enterprise and social innovation I often hear the phrase “to fail forward” to highlight that social entrepreneurs and social change agents can learn from mistakes in their social businesses to improve the products, services or social outcomes they seek.

The problem is that social entrepreneurs are playing with live ammunition. If social entrepreneurs don’t succeed, in my experience they often give up and close their doors. When a social enterprise fails and closes, our society is left wounded. People are hurt. Jobs for underemployed are lost. Social outcomes are not improved.

In fact in just the last few years, I’ve witnessed dozens of ambitious, intelligent, and idealistic entrepreneurs from all sectors fail at creating a sustainable social enterprise. Their failures are not seen as opportunities for some form of renaissance or rebirth. In fact, many of them fail quietly, in relative shame, and the lessons they learned are rarely shared with others. The social entrepreneurs find a new passion, or they retire, or they get drawn out of the challenge of entrepreneurship into a salaried position.

Therefore, this blog post is a warning to all who seek to become social entrepreneurs.

If you’ve identified some form of social justice, and you want to change it, you simply can’t give up.

The problem will persist or worsen without you. If social enterprise is not the right tool, then find another hammer to make a difference.

Business is hard work. Social enterprise is even harder work, because social entrepreneurs need to find financial sustainability in a market economy that has, in many cases, created the injustice they are trying to fix. One can’t just dabble in social enterprise. The stakes are just too high.

Social entrepreneur must know that they are fighting against a behemoth, and it simply won’t be easy. They must commit to their work as a calling “for a good cause.” They must know that social enterprise is a responsibility and will likely be a hardship. If you choose this life, you are likely going to get roughed up a bit. Steel yourself for this fact.

Doing the right thing is never easy. Don’t be fooled into believing that social enterprise is easy. And when it gets hard to push onward, don’t allow yourself to give up. Our common good is at stake.

IMPACT ACADEMY: A free program to support your social change idea

Deadline to apply: August 17th

Join Impact Academy: CityMaker Edition

HUB Ottawa offers a new cohort of its flagship program, Impact Academy. They are partnering with Synapcity for this special Impact Academy: CityMaker Edition. Here is what you need to know!

What it is: A free, three-month learning program running between September 5th and December 5th, 2018. (Yes, it is a free program for participants this year…so don’t delay)

Who it’s for: Creative and entrepreneurial changemakers working to make our communities more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable and who want to take their projects, ventures and initiatives to the next level.

Topic areas: Transportation & Mobility, Environment & Sustainability, and Healthy & Caring Communities.

Deadline to apply, August 17th, 2018.

Since 2012 Impact Hub’s Impact Academy has supported over 150 social changemakers in their entrepreneurial journey. Social Delta has been an active partner in both the design of the program from its inception, and Jonathan Wade of Social Delta continues to deliver elements of the program.  This year, you can get Social Delta’s insights and recommendations on business modeling on October 31st, but each session will bring expert community resources to the classroom, and spectacular living examples to the program.

Key Ingredients of Flourishing Social Enterprises

Poverty & Purpose

It is no accident that some of the hotbeds of new and successful Canadian social enterprises are in specific, economically depressed regions: North end Winnipeg, Downtown Eastside Vancouver, Regent Park in Toronto,  and rural Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and indeed, the needs of the population in these regions are acute and entrenched: discrimination, drug use, alcoholism, obesity, crime, unemployment, marginalization… Where there is poverty, inequality, and significant loss of livelihood there is a need to try anything; poverty creates an irrefutable purpose to develop a mechanism to arrest human suffering. Social enterprise is one such mechanism, where a business model is employed specifically to address community and human needs.

Innovation & Investment

Desperation may be a driver for change, but someone has to create an idea for the business. In my experience, social enterprise business ideas are rarely conceived by committee.  More commonly, a single person is responsible for a creative social enterprise idea, and they need to then invest their time, energy and often finances to bring that idea to the market. That individual can work independently as a solo-preneur, or as an intrepreneur within government, the private sector, co-operatives or non profits. Growth and development of the idea will of course require support from many actors within these organizational structures, and even from a broader community, but innovation and investment typically starts with one person who has a dream to make life better for others.

Risk & Reslience

However, business is not easy; ask any entrepreneur. Social entrepreneurs face an increased challenge because they live in a world where success is measured in social wealth, not in financial returns. Creating a business where maximizing social benefit drives all business decisions can—and in most cases does—suppress financial returns. Risk is therefore large and the expectation of future financial wealth is optimistic at best, and frequently a myth.  In the private sector, individuals and organizations assume risk on the presumption that future financial rewards will compensate them for risking their time, energy, money and social capital. Social enterprise flourishes when the innovators have a resilient constitution, and a way to accept, manage and even embrace personal losses for the sake of a common good.

Patience & Prudence

The worst part is that starting a business creates risks that last for a long time. For many individuals and organizations launching a social enterprise, the initial energy can be whittled down by a thousand tiny cuts, often over years. In my experience, social enterprises that are spearheaded by an innovator in the non-profit sector may take up to three years to launch, and perhaps five  years to break even (if ever). Accepting, managing and embracing losses and risk over that length of time—all motivated by a sense of optimism and altruism—requires exemplary patience and a strong, informed, and flexible plan to succeed. A full-fledged business plan may seem excessive, but there has to be at least an understanding of the market, the risks, the operational requirements, proposed budget including both projected income and expenditures.

Help to support fair wages for global garbage pickers

One of Social Delta’s friends, Plastics For Change, has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to launch their global platform to support a fair market economy for those on the globe who make a living collecting plastic from the world’s oceans and beaches.

The brain behind this concept is Andrew Almack,  and we’ve been working with Andrew for several months and have been amazed by his knowledge, drive, and commitment to this issue.  Social Delta has no doubt that this business will significantly improve the lives of thousands of individuals living in poverty, while simultaneously help to clean the world’s water of a  growing plastic menace.

Join Social Delta as a contributor to the Indiegogo campaign today, and learn more about how Plastics For Change is a force for good on our planet.

 

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