5 Things Every Successful Social Entrepreneur Knows

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A social enterprise is an organization – either for-profit or nonprofit – that is committed to a social mission, while also following the market-driven approach and financial principles needed to run a sustainable business. In other words, if you’re committed to using your business to do good in your community, you may already be a social entrepreneur. Here are five things every successful social entrepreneur knows. 

1. A social enterprise is a business.

A social enterprise is a business that’s built to create positive social impact. Social enterprises don’t need to be charities or even nonprofits. They can use any type of business structure, but they are businesses

Some well-known examples of successful social enterprises are: 

  • Better World Books, an online bookseller that finances international literacy programs
  • Warby Parker, an eyeglass maker that donates a pair of glasses to a person in need for every pair of glasses bought
  • Hot Chicken Takeover, a Columbus-based Nashville-style chicken restaurant that provides supportive jobs to men and women who need a fair chance at work (and an ECDI client!)

With so many worthy causes that need help and so many creative ways to help them, there is limitless room in the social enterprise space for pioneers.

While your social enterprise may be smaller in scale, any functional social enterprise is not simply a passion project. It must be a sustainable business. You may be moved to do good in your community, but a social enterprise can only make a positive impact if the business itself is successful enough to support its social cause. 

If you want to help people, but are not able to start and run a viable business, consider volunteering for a charity, community group, or other social enterprise organization. 

2. You need a social-enterprise-specific business plan.

One definition of a social enterprise is a business that puts its mission on par with profit. This goal can make for a more complex business plan, as the inherent give-back element will affect your business’ bottom line – whether it’s because you are donating financially, or because you need to account for additional resources or expenses, such as social enterprise specific training or support for your staff. A social enterprise specific business plan is built with these ideas in mind. 

You’ll need to factor in the potential ramifications on your pricing model, assess your ability to support additional overhead, and consider the need for specialized support, supply chain or logistics elements, or any other mission-related needs. Put simply – your business plan must address more moving parts.  

3. You must stay focused on a single mission.

Say, for instance, you’re a florist who employs formerly incarcerated individuals. Maybe your mission is “providing reformed citizens with economic advancement and dignity through ornamental horticulture.” Business is booming, and your flower shops are generating way more revenue than anticipated. You clearly love nature, and you’ve always felt guilty using gas-guzzling flower delivery vans. You may have the urge to replace all these vehicles with a fleet of hybrids. Maybe you can afford the switch, but only barely. 

Despite your good intentions, this plan convolutes your business model, and can leave you without enough of a financial safety net, while drawing resources and focus away from the population you set out to help. Expansion on too many fronts can sink even the most successful business. 

Stay focused on your original mission. It might be tempting to try to tackle more than one cause as you succeed, but your social enterprise can only address one cause well. Don’t be distracted by all the good you could be doing. The scale of your business can grow, but the scope of your mission should not. 

4. Avoid burnout by defining roles and boundaries.

Social entrepreneurs tend to be natural givers. You may want to help the people you serve in every possible way, but you need to define boundaries, as it’s easy to over-commit. For instance, if your mission is to provide meals for homeless individuals, you may not have enough time in your days to regularly arrange shelter and run errands for people experiencing homelessness in your community. You may encounter opportunities to help – and it may be beyond the scope of what you can reasonably accomplish while running a business.

Healthy boundaries are good for you and good for the community you serve. Just as you can lose focus by committing to too many ideas, you can burn out by committing to too many individuals. It feels gratifying to help on an individual level, but with a social enterprise, you can help many people. If you focus on the big picture and the long haul, you can do the most good. 

5. You can’t do everything yourself.

Social entrepreneurs are a scrappy breed who often operate from a do-it-yourself mentality. This framework can be helpful in emergencies, but taking too much on yourself could mean creating an untenable business. 

A social enterprise is inherently social. You’ll need to tap into every available resource, including your network of likeminded people and other businesses. Even if networking isn’t second nature to you, you’ll need to connect with investors, other businesses, and your staff. Successful social entrepreneurs have strong support from their communities.

In addition to finding connections by networking, you can find a multitude of resources in Columbus’ broad ecosystem of social enterprise support organizations. ECDI’s Social Enterprise Hub offers entrepreneur training and mentorship, social enterprise-specific business planning assistance, access to a social enterprise business loan fund, and connections to other social enterprise-specific resources in our region. 

Asking for help can be the wisest step you’ll take towards fulfilling your mission of helping others. (If you’re interested in exploring social entrepreneurship in Central Ohio, you can even start by reaching out to me!) 

Social entrepreneurship can be extremely rewarding. Being a successful social entrepreneur takes thoughtful, intentional planning. If you take the right steps, you can get yourself on a steady path to making a big impact in your community.

This mutli-part sponsored series highlighting ECDI’s work in Columbus is presented with paid support by ECDI.

Since 2004, ECDI has assisted Ohio’s entrepreneurs through its one-stop shop business services model, suited to meet the needs of all entrepreneurs, regardless of what business stage they’re in. From providing capital to entrepreneurs looking to expand their businesses, to providing focused, business-specific educational opportunities to enhance entrepreneurial skill sets, ECDI works with their clients to meet their unique needs. Whether assisting a new client with a business concept or an accomplished entrepreneur opening a fifth location, ECDI’s “never say no” approach has allowed over twelve thousand entrepreneurs to take advantage of the services it provides. Visit ecdi.org today to learn more.