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.