The reason you started reading this blog article is probably because you have an interest in social entrepreneurship, social change and the like. Maybe you even set it as your career goal to work in the field, address a social or environmental problem and bring about change. Maybe you are already doing it. Or maybe you are even a critic of the work of social entrepreneurs. This article is for all of you. Because let’s face it – every concept has its shortcomings – even the work of social entrepreneurs. Nobody is perfect applies to almost anything, not just on a personal level: economic systems, politics and of course business practices. The only exception probably being the new single of Mumford & Sons which is as close to perfect as it gets, but that’s a whole different story.
I highly believe in the strong potential that lies within social entrepreneurship, within tackling nowadays challenges with innovative approaches and business models. We are faced with complex problems that require us to engage in innovation processes and new ways of thinking. By doing business differently i.e. acting more responsibly with regards to social and environmental aspects, we can change the system inside out. I am a strong believer that we, as individuals, have more power in us than one might believe – that we can impact a great deal with our own, seemingly small, actions. We have the ability to create whole new ways of thinking and doing business. We can contribute to a society that prefers collaboration over competition, common welfare over money, trust over control, and people over profits.
However, social entrepreneurship practices are not always perfect – they don’t always run as smoothly and are not as world-changing as one might hope for them to be. We have to be realistic when evaluating the work of social entrepreneurs – their good intentions are not enough to solve the problems at hand. It is the result of a social business’ activities that counts the most. If you haven’t watched the movie Poverty Inc. yet, do it now. It provides you with a shocking insight in the industry of NGOs and self-appointed social entrepreneurs. There are many examples of NGOs and social businesses that have made the problems they are trying to solve actually worse or have created other problems through their intervention. This blog post is neither to judge those organisations nor to point any fingers or support any conspiracy theories revolving around the charity industry.
It is much more a wake-up call, an insight and a call to action for (social) entrepreneurs to reconsider their business practices and take their whole supply chains into consideration – with all the consequences that come with it. It is on the one hand about realising that some of our old practices don’t work anymore, that we need to re-think and re-build our business models. On the other hand it is about evaluating the work that you do and the impact that you have. How Albert Einstein nicely put it: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.
So let’s stop being insane and engage in more effective ways to come up with sustainable solutions that will once and for all eradicate the most pressing problems of our society today. Common sense as well as research suggest to go about this whole thing differently; rather than creating solutions FOR, we should create them WITH our target group by taking their environment, culture, economy, social ties, behaviours (the list goes on) into consideration. The design thinking process is a viable tool for coming up with new business models. It puts the human component in the center of its approach, meaning that the solution you will create is first and foremost desirable by your target segment before taking other factors like feasibility and financial rewards into account. It does not mean that the business model cannot be viable just because the product is desired – it means that we have to build on what is desirable and adapt the business model accordingly. I know – easier said than done.
In a second step, it is important to track your impact so you don’t end up like one of the many organisations shown in Poverty Inc.; publicly shamed and criticized for their (unintended) strains they put on the environment and/or their target groups. This is why social impact measurement is not just a buzzword, but a powerful and inevitable tool for every social entrepreneur and NGO – it’s a thing. The first and foremost goal of a social business is tackling a social/environmental issue rather than solely making a profit. Now imagine you have a social business that doesn’t meet its aim of alleviating the problem at hand but much rather making it worse. Wouldn’t that take away the whole legitimacy of the business’ existence?
It’s time to make a shift – a shift towards a more effective way of tackling nowadays challenges, a shift towards sanity. It’s not enough to develop products and services that we think will help solve the challenge at hand and hope for the best. It’s not enough to give a fish. It’s not even enough to teach how to fish. Time for disruption of the fish industry and measuring our progress along the way.
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