What can established organisations learn from social entrepreneurs?

social entrepreneursIn recent months we’ve been engaging with a range of social entrepreneurs and sharing some of the learning from their experience in our Foreword articles. This month we will distil some of the themes that have come through from an organisational perspective, and consider how they can be deployed in established organisations. Next month we’ll look at some of the characteristics and behaviours of innovative leaders.

  1. Be prepared to pivot:

    Back in the old days when change happened slowly, we’d develop a three to five year strategy and stick to it, often within a very hierarchical ‘command and control’ organisational structure. Innovative organisations don’t work like that. They are much more agile. Whilst they may start with an idea, they are prepared to shift focus in response to the external environment and feedback from their customers. The inspiration for Sydney’s Bread and Butter Project started with the business model. Whilst the model stayed true to the original intention, founder Paul Allam looked at providing training and employment opportunities for a variety of different communities before he settled on working with refugees and asylum seekers. At KiK, young entrepreneurs changed the business name and drove the coffee shop business in Adelaide before adding new ventures in chocolates, catering and cleaning.

The lesson: stay alert to the external context. You don’t have to shift the focus of the entire organisation, but, be open to trying new ideas, and be prepared to stop doing things that no longer serve your customers’ needs. 

  1. Keep evolving:

    Just because something’s working doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve it. The old mantra of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ just doesn’t apply here. Bread and Butter Project in Sydney has made a success of training refugees and asylum seekers as bakers, with many moving on to jobs in open employment, but founder Paul Allam says “we’re still working on the model of how best to support our trainees”. Hutt St Centre has been serving South Australia’s homeless people since 1954, and is constantly looking for better ways to meet – and fund – community needs, launching Australia’s first social investment bond focused on homelessness in 2017.

The lesson: rather than being complacent, have a continuous improvement mindset. How can we do this better? Can we make a small change that will make a positive difference to customer experience?

  1. Loosen the reins:

    trying to keep absolute control over everything means that you will miss other opportunities, particularly the valuable contributions of others. Although Louise Nobes was the founder, and is still very much the driving force behind KiK, it’s the young people that are developing the new business ideas. Having established Bread and Butter Project, Paul Allam has stepped back from day to day operations as the board and professional staff manage the social enterprise. 

The lesson: delegate! Understand the capabilities of your board, staff, volunteers and partners and create opportunities for them to contribute in a meaningful way. Understand what’s really important to the organisation and manage and measure that, rather than trying to exercise absolute control over absolutely everything.

  1. Keep partner engagement fresh:

    successful social entrepreneurs are levering the skills and resources available to them through their external networks – for funding, in kind contributions, intelligence, partnership initiatives and influence. Stakeholder and partner relationships are another area for ongoing development and review. Bread and Butter Project has been measuring its social impact through a social return on investment (SROI) program that Paul Allam describes as ‘gifted’ by the Centre for Social Impact. SROI is an intensive model, so once the current program is complete, Bread and Butter Project will review whether SROI is the right model for the longer term.

The lesson: don’t get stuck in a rut with your partners. Consider what else your partners might contribute to your organisation as your relationship evolves, or whether it’s time to move on.

As established organisations, we often feel a need to protect our legacy. Whilst that’s a laudable aim, it risks creating an insular culture that sticks with old and familiar services, methodologies and relationships. Social entrepreneurs are demonstrating a more flexible approach of continuously reviewing, and iterating, in response to the external context and internal stimuli.


Jane Arnott
General Manager, Consulting and Business Services
Email: jarnott@cbb.com.au
Phone: 1300 284 364

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