Innovation feeder


how are social entrepreneurial organisations different?

Recently my father-in-law and I had some ongoing discussions about what makes an entrepreneurial organisation (or even a social entrepreneurial organisation) different to a mainstream corporate one. We were discussing it because he himself founded and still runs a fantastic social entrepreneurial organisation called Hands on Learning and the question has emerged, how is the nature of their organisation different to a corporate? How is the leader of one organisation different to the leader of another type of organisation? I’m particularly interested also because our organisation  differs greatly both in management style and strategic development / approach to a traditional corporate. In fact, many people start their own businesses because they don’t fit the corporate mould or don’t wish to work in that kind of environment. When we’re young and unsophisticated we think having our own business is all about not having to work for the man, not having to be in the office by 9am or having to answer to anyone. As we reach a riper professional age, we realise that working in our businesses makes us more productive and more creative because we can work in a way that suits us. We can really understand what things affect us and remove all of the unimportant obstacles so that we can lead fulfilling and productive professional lives. One of the greatest challenges we face in our business, is how to continue to share that entrepreneurial spirit through the business as it gets larger (and more structured). How do you grow without losing the magic?

Will Marre who is an award winning writer and speaker on social entrepreneurship has further developed this thinking within the realm of social entrepreneurship. He contends that the difference between business entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is dramatic. Business entrepreneurship, for instance, is very much based on planning. If you want to be successful, you better start with a plan. It’s very analytical in nature (and necessarily so). Traditional business denotes that you need to have a plan for profit. What’s your business model? Who are your competitors? What’s your cash flow projection? What market are you operating in? What are your sustainable competitive advantages? It’s all about being good (and right) with your plan. Social entrepreneurship denotes is a different model of success and achievement. It starts with being passionate about seeing a problem and really wanting to solve it. Its entrepreneurship but in a really fundamental way. It’s not looking for a temporary solution. It says “What is the real root cause of this problem? How can we solve it?”. These social entrepreneurs are thinking and trying to develop solutions that have a very real chance of addressing the issue and making real change.

In social entrepreneurship most people just plunge in. If you calculated the risk or the legal side of things, or the probability of success or the lack of funds, you’d never get started. People who are passionate about something dive straight in. The spirit of social entrepreneurship is about plunging straight in with passion. And it’s through the plunging that you better understand the lay of the land, the real causes and the critical factors. You meet the people, you hear the stories and you change your mind a million times about how you can help.

Think of it as a very sophisticated series of trial and error; but one of the most important factors in a social entrepreneur is that you need to be persistent over a long period of time. And that means you need to be passionate. You have to want to solve this issue so badly that you’ll look anywhere, ask anyone, try anything no matter how it might feel or look to others, to find those opportunities to make change.

So we might suggest that effective (lest we say successful) social entrepreneurial organisations share similar characteristics:

They are passionate.

They are persistent and resilient.

They are flexible and light on their feet.

If we consider  entrepreneurial organisations who hand over the reins from the founder to a new leader, they too face similar challenges. Recreating (or continuing) the entrepreneurial thrust within an organisation is one of the greatest challenges businesses face as they grow and hand down leadership. There is a strong balance to be considered between necessary growth and development of a strong public interface (with corporate governance and accountability to investors) and balancing the magic of an internal team, without which you have nothing.

Within both commercial entrepreneurial organisations and social entrepreneurial organisations there is a role for a more corporate board to provide corporate wisdom, guidance and structure, but not at the expense of the heart and soul of the people who are actually making the change. Although many not-for-profits would proudly call themselves a not-for-profit business and proudly run their not-for-profits with the same professionalism as a business – at the core of a social entrepreneur’s passion is change, not money.

John Elkington, Founder and Chief Entrepreneur, SustainAbility outlines what he sees as being the key  traits of the successful social entrepreneur in his latest Harvard Business Review interview:

Social entrepreneurs are unreasonable – contending that the reasonable man adapts to the world as he finds it, the unreasonable man tries to change it. They don’t accept the world as it is and they see the possibilities of what could be. They’re game changers. They’re not trying to treat the system as it is, they’re trying to change the system and so in this sense, they have less in common than the man who has worked and accepted the corporate structure and framework all his life.

Effective social entrepreneurs are propelled by emotion – these people respond to emotion, to passion. The difference is that the emotion is not around making money but rather addressing key human issues. I’m not sure that this is any different to a more commercial entrepreneurial organisation its just that the issues are different.

Social entrepreneurs seek profit in unprofitable pursuits – Here it depends what we describe as profit. If it were about money, most of these people wouldn’t be here but what he means is that social entrepreneurs seek a return in situations where currently there is none or very little. These people are very interested in a return for their efforts but the return is often not financial.

It’s (almost) impossible for any startup founder to hire another entrepreneur to run their business because who would have as much passion as they would? Social entrepreneurs work at their cause for decades because it takes more than a few years to see real change. Leaders of these kinds of projects need to want to solve their chosen issue so badly that they’ll keep trying, keep searching, keep changing until they make change, however big or small. Because they understand that all change matters and sometimes the smallest planted seed, can grow into something great.

I’ve posted Apple’s “Here’s to the crazy ones” ad because it reminds us that the sort of people who try to change things do think differently. Yes its sexy to develop new technology, to send a man to the moon or a picture to the screen. But it’s also the people who keep trying to solve the key issues like access to health services, engagement in education, social and physical poverty and homelessness, these people are changemakers of a different order. They are the people who look at the world and say ‘what can I do about this?’ ‘how can I make this better or more equal or more accessible?’.

It pays to remember that with great skill and opportunity comes great responsibility. Whether we take that on and what form that manifests in is up to us. For those of you interested in adding your brains to Hands on Learning, you can find out more about it here and here.


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