The 5 building blocks of social enterprise sustainability

Social enterprises are built from a single vision to improve people’s lives or deep desire to give something back to the community, but this can often overshadow the thorny subject of sustainability.

Few businesses – social enterprise-based or not – have a deep understanding of sustainability. It refers to an organisation whose actions and purpose are grounded in environmental, social and financial concerns, but focussing in equal measure on all three areas is very challenging.

In this blog, we’ve listed five ways any social enterprise can create a more sustainable future for both the organisation and its community.

1. Accept that growth and comfort can’t be combined

Growth is exciting and challenging, but it isn’t comfortable. As a new business owner, that’s a fact that is rather tough to come to terms with.

In times gone by, growth was just as hard to achieve, but once harnessed, could quickly propel businesses to heights beyond their wildest dreams – and relatively comfortably.

We now live in a very different world. The speed with which technology innovates leaves those slow on the uptake bereft of modern tools, while the scrutiny placed on banks following the crash of 2008 has made finance difficult to obtain.

Your social enterprise is capable of growing, but it will only do so if you accept that it’s going to be something of a bumpy ride. You’ll need to proactively learn and embrace failure, but the speed with which you can pick yourself up from defeat and forge ahead with a renewed plan will dictate the sustainability of your enterprise.

2. Pick one area – and stick to it

Depending on the sector within which your social enterprise operates, it might be tempting to build an arsenal of products and services, but in doing so, you’ll lose the ability to focus on one in particular.

By picking one area, you can focus your efforts on building an organisation that is an expert within it. Similarly, you should ensure that your market is tightly defined; a social enterprise can’t be all things to all people, and if it can combine a clear line of expertise with an equally transparent target market, it will stand the test of time.

Don’t try and be a big player or spread your enterprise too thinly. Instead, ensure your offering is capable of driving incremental value to both your customers and the business itself.

3. Start with a big idea, but scale it down

Social enterprises are at their most effective when they descend from a big idea. And while that big idea may be perfectly achievable, aiming for it from the off will limit the sustainability of the organisation.

Start with your big idea, but break it up into bite-sized chunks. In doing so, you’ll create a social enterprise that can quickly deliver value, even if that value only scratches the surface of what you hope to achieve.

Treat your enterprise like a journey and raise awareness of your big idea by inviting customers to join you for the ride. It takes a long time to tell the story of an enterprise, and sustainability can only arise from humble beginnings.

4. Don’t stray from the business purpose

As the owner of a social enterprise, you’re also the owner of a business, and if you want to create a sustainable organisation, you’ll need to constantly remind yourself of its business purpose.

You need to drive value for your customers, but that’s only possible if you focus on the value proposition. Lose touch with the business purpose of your enterprise, and it’s longevity will take a significant hit.

5. Don’t be afraid to reinvent

Running a successful, sustainable social enterprise is all about constant reinvention. That singular goal will only be achievable if you dare to challenge your ideas, adjust the original plan and learn from the mistakes you’ll inevitably make.

The business plan you wrote six months ago may no longer be relevant, but that doesn’t mean the enterprise has failed – it just needs to reimagine how it might achieve that all-important big idea.

Lean on advances in technology and emerging marketing trends to adjust the way your enterprise positions itself within the market – even if that means completely changing your original approach.

Wrapping up

Sustainability is something every social enterprise owner has to tackle head-on. It will raise uncomfortable questions, and demands that the business element of the organisation is given the attention it deserves.

Follow our tips above, and your social enterprise will stand the best chance of becoming sustainable and capable of making your big idea a reality.

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