social enterprise

By Janine Vanderburg, President/CEO, Joining Vision and Action

What is the one thing a social enterprise must never do?

Believe that your customers will buy from you simply because of your social mission.

It’s a lesson I learned managing my first social enterprise in the early 1980s. Hoping to both employ women and generate revenue for the center, a nonprofit had started a home cleaning service. The marketing proposition that you can have your house cleaned and benefit other women at the same time was geared to middle- and upper-income women who had flooded the workforce. 

The marketing proposition fell apart when a cleaning crew did not show up for a scheduled appointment. Unbeknownst to me, a counselor at the nonprofit had told the female driver on the crew that she could skip the appointment because of a conflicting appointment for services. (Another whole lesson I often emphasize in training about everyone in a nonprofit being aligned around moving forward with a social enterprise model).

The customer called me, angry. She was having a party. With lots of women friends. With whom she had planned to share our story. And now her house was a mess. With my limited housekeeping skills, I went over to help her. I’m sure a story was told, but it did not benefit the social enterprise.

In my years working in social enterprise since, both as a practitioner and an adviser, I’ve seen this play out again and again. Products that had too much of a “loving hands at home” feel; booths at fairs taken down before the event was over; meals catered by a social enterprise that arrived lukewarm or not well-staged.

In their groundbreaking book on practitioner lessons about social enterprise, Mission, Inc., Kevin Lynch and Julius Walls name this paradox of social enterprise: Perception vs. Reality, with the following practitioner’s tip:

“All the mission in the world won’t make someone eat a lousy, overpriced spaghetti sauce. You have to be good.”

So what does it mean to be good? Lynch and Walls explain: “You had better be good—good on quality, good on service, good on value.”

I’ve learned this important lesson over time: All other things being equal, people may give your social enterprise a chance, but the things that must be equal or better to all other “standard” options are appearance, design, quality, service, price.

Want to learn more about how to avoid the practitioner’s dilemmas as you ramp up your social enterprise? Join us for Social Enterprise Basecamp, designed for early-stage social entrepreneurs who may be starting their own business or a venture as part of a 501(c)(3). Many participants will come without a specific business concept in mind, while some will arrive looking to refine an existing social enterprise concept. Want us to bring Social Enterprise Basecamp to your community? Call or email us now.