Journey into Social Enterprise: Long March or Walking the Talk?

Jez Hall of Shared Future and Lynn Sbaih of Give2Gain had the privilege of running a two hour session on the ‘Journey of Social Enterprise’ at the 2019 Greater Manchester Social Enterprise conference. Their purpose was to explore the motivations and reasons why people got into social enterprise, and then, to think more widely about what sustained individuals on their journey.

We ran two panels, with a host and scribe for each, onto which we invited seven social entrepreneurs to give their perspectives on growing and sustaining a social enterprise. The blog below is drawn from the notes we took, and gives pointers to inform those wishing to support individuals who are leading social enterprises.

Our inspiring panel of passionate people.

Firstly I want to thank the panel participants. On the start-up panel was Alice Sparks of Invisible Manchester  and Sharron Mooks of  Manchester Roller Sports. They were joined by a brave member of the audience, just starting out on their own journey, to develop a social enterprise focused on fashion, cosmetics and mental health. Tips on starting a business were provided by Vikas Shah MBE, a respected business coach.

Following the the first panel we heard from some more established social entrepreneurs: Adil Mohammed Javed of Alchemy Arts, Rachel Summerscales of Hulme Community Garden Centre, and also Nickala Torkington of Flourish Together. The second session was chaired by Lynn Sbaih.

Getting underway

When starting out it was clear that what really mattered was our personal motivation and drive. A belief that there was a gap in the market, an unmet need, and a sense of our personal mission to fill that gap. Spotting the opportunity required diverse lived experiences. And a moment of realisation that change was both needed and possible. That a problem we knew well had to be fixed and we knew how.

Yet, that wasn’t sufficient, however all-consuming our sense of an injustice might be.

To help us get going social enterprises need that all important initial boost. We must attract supporters and funders with skills and experience and, most important, must tap into their motivations. It requires the new social entrepreneur to first grab their attention, then ask for their help, and always to be prepared to learn new skills or take advice.

Understanding what we do best, and being open to new ideas will enable us to better understand what potential investors want. And hopefully get them to invest their money, time or skills in us, or our enterprise.

Passion is not enough. An amazing story is not enough. We need to prove we make a difference.

Passion is not enough: Collaborate, Measure, Sell!

Investors want to understand what impact their investment will bring. That means thinking early on how we can measure our impact. The difference we make. Because it is those measurements, communicated in a compelling way that make us fundable. Or, in business speak ‘a solid investment’.

Another key message during the first panel was about how to build a culture of collaboration.

That meant a focus on values, such as openness, giving, trust and sharing. All common within the mindset of social enterprise. But there also needed to be an entrepreneurial mindset. One that had a clear focus on our business model in the medium to long term.

Having that awareness brought the confidence to ask for help. Maybe in the form of financial investment. Or more likely in getting people to offer their time and skills to the enterprise. We can’t solve the world alone, we need help, we need to collaborate, and we need to keep learning.

That means being networked to others on the same journey, and then continually communicating what you do and why good people like them need good people like you. It is called ‘relationship marketing’ within the business world. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it! Learn to sell your passion.

Losing our Mojo: Minders, finders and grinders.

Having set the scene, we moved on to hear from Adil, Rachel and Nickala, and consider what happens after we launch. Many common issues came up that echoed the earlier conversation. Especially the need to keep learning and communicating your impact. And the dangers of burn-out.

Its not always easy to keep going. Many of the second panel reflected on the dangers of ‘losing our mojo’… that inner drive and confidence that it’s possible to keep making that difference.

That is when peer support really matters. Use your networks and contacts to recharge your batteries. Keep having fun, knowing the journey will be long and, at times, difficult.

One person rarely has all the characteristics needed for an enterprise to flourish, so a sustainable enterprise had to build a core team beyond one passionate person. We called them the Minders, finders and grinders, or, less pithily, those that manage, those that sell, and those that do.

That core team of managers and sellers, alongside the doers (the people actually delivering the service) needs to be built. It is probably the biggest leap for the passionate social entrepreneur … to devolve and share control. To evolve a collaborative leadership structure. One which focuses on long term sustainability and gets away from the sense that we are ‘just winging it’.

Mentors matter: They help us find ourselves

When it gets tough, that is the moment to reflect and regroup. Rebuild our inspiration, share our burdens, and find that balance between the social and the enterprise. Finding the right mentor is one way to do this.

A good mentor can lift anxieties and help us rediscover our own creativity. Help us spot the tipping points, and grasp new opportunities. There is always more to learn, and that knowledge is often locked up within us. In our experience as social enterprise leaders, from all the years of grinding.

Learn from the deep well of experience you have inside. A good mentor will help you do that.

The phrase that came out frequently in our discussion was ‘cultural intelligence’. Your mentor should fit with your need, understand you, nourish you. Help you grow in the way you need. A good mentor will know where you are coming from. They can help you understand where you need to go next.

It wasn’t all about fluffy leadership guru stuff. There were some really practical conversations on the opportunities of running a shared back office to reduce cost and build capacity in a more flexible way. Or why research and development always needed more funding. Which meant either applying for investment or grants to better understand our impact or develop new services. Or growing a business model which ensured future development was funded from our current activity.

Surplus, surplus, surplus! The holy grail? ‘fraid so!

Whether you call it profit or surplus, the hardest thing is escaping a common mindset within our sector. That we are able to survive on principles, passion and fresh air. In fact, that we should. But there is a better way! More realistic.

Surpluses. The holy grail of sustainable social enterprise. Elusive and precious. The hardest thing is realising that a profit (or a surplus if you prefer) is a good thing, and always needed. They enable us to grow and evolve. Otherwise we can simply grind to a halt. Not least when we lose our inspiration and become boxed in by the pressure of today.

There is nothing more energising than knowing we are doing good things. And then shouting about that to get in new investment, new business, new supporters. Surpluses make that possible. They strengthen the hidden core of our business. Enable us to stride out on our journey into social enterprise.

Standing still is never an option.

We need to walk the talk, apply our learning and take action. Be inspired, because we are inspiring. Individually, and together, as a community of social enterprises.

So, there you go. A very rich 2 hours. Thanks are due from Lynn and myself to GMSEN for the opportunity to host this panel discussion. We were a good team.

Blog by Jez Hall. 2019