Social Entrepreneurship

By Kenneth Surbrugg, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Missouri Southern State University

“Social entrepreneurship is the process by which individuals, startups, and entrepreneurs develop and fund solutions that directly address social issues. A social entrepreneur, therefore, is a person who explores business opportunities that have a positive impact on their community, society, or the world.”

This definition comes from the United States Chamber of Commerce, but what does it really mean? As a social entrepreneur, do you have to solve social issues by yourself, or can you partner with others who are already working on that issue?

Social entrepreneurs run for-profit businesses. These organizations can range from an e-commerce website to a manufacturing facility. And the social issues can range from local problems to global obstacles. A business that sponsors a local youth sports team is practicing social entrepreneurship. So is the company that is donating thousands of dollars a year to help find a cure for cancer.

There are those who argue that a true social entrepreneurial organization discovers a unique issue and then creates a solution for that issue. Think about TOMS shoes or Bombas socks. These organizations sell specific products and then donate the profits back to their communities. For every pair of TOMS shoes sold, they donate a pair of shoes. TOMS also financially supports efforts that provide mental health resources to those in need. For Bombas, every pair of socks purchased equals a pair of socks that are donated to a homeless shelter. For these companies, their products reflect their social mission and profits generated from these products are invested in solving a social issue.

Does social entrepreneurship have to be on that scale? No. Social entrepreneurship can range from a few hundred dollars to millions donated each year. Whatever amount is spent, the goal is still the same: For-profit businesses investing in solutions to solve different social issues.

Many businesses are often asked to sponsor a wide variety of community and social causes. If it’s not one request, it’s another. What is someone to do? How can you become a more efficient and effective social entrepreneur?

First, think about your business and what you do. Are there any local, regional, or national organizations that directly work with social issues in your industry? For example, if you own a landscaping business, is there an organization that promotes environmental issues? In other words, is there a fit between what your business does and a specific social issue?

Next, think about other social issues that you and your staff care about. Are you interested in serving the homeless population, being a part of the solution to end childhood hunger, or something else? Are there organizations in the area working on those issues, and, if so, who are they, what are they doing, and how can you help?

Then pick one or two issues or organizations to investigate. What is being done now and how can your business help? If there are organizations working to resolve a certain social issue, what do they do with the funds that they receive? Who is on their leadership team? Finding answers to these and other questions can help you decide which organizations to invest in. Make sure to involve your staff in this process as they may have valuable input to share.

Now, choose your course of action and develop a plan. Communicate with your staff early and often in this stage. Does one of your employees have special skills to help in this effort? Does anyone have a personal connection to another organization involved with this issue? How much time and how many resources do you intend to invest? Will you try to create new partnerships or develop your own solution? Be realistic — you still have a business to run and customers to serve.

Next, develop your strategy and a timeline to execute your plan. It is easy to fall into thinking that this initiative is a one-time event or donation. And if it is, then great! At least you have acted. If you are looking for a deeper commitment, then you need to plan ahead to figure out your execution strategy and timeline. For example, your organization may decide to adopt a stretch of road for trash pickup. How many times do you have to schedule trash pickup and when do you intend to do this? Will your employees be paid or are they expected to donate their time?

You have selected the social cause and have communicated this throughout your organization. You have a plan, strategy, and timeline. Now it is time to execute your strategy and communicate it to those outside of your business. Take pictures of your staff volunteering, make it an event, and be consistent. Whatever path you choose, be persistent in your involvement. If you make it a habit, then it will become a part of your company’s DNA.

Two final thoughts: First, keep being diligent on your involvement in as a social entrepreneur. If you partner with another organization, then be sure to keep in touch and stay involved. Organizations sometimes shift focus or leadership, so stay in contact with your social partners.

Second, start doing something — anything. Once you do, think about growing your social impact. In talking with social entrepreneurs, they all share the same thing — social entrepreneurship is a part of their identity, and they cannot imagine a world where they don’t participate in solving social issues.

Keep innovating.

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