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Social Enterprises: Standing out when everyone wants to do good

Is the fight against pollution becoming convoluted? Is everyone too concerned about being concerned? Socially conscious businesses have seen a huge surge, with the pandemic also playing no small part in the increase of consumers who are careful where their purchases are coming from alongside businesses keeping a close eye on their products to ensure sustainability.

A survey of business leaders around the world found that 93% believed a company was more than an employer, rather they’re ‘societal stewards’.

With everyone caring, pretending to care or aiming to do so how do you stand out for doing good? This was the question posed to a variety of business leaders and experts at the most recent roundtable, hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre.

Motivation vs Mindset

These days, it’s trendy to care, with so many businesses taking this approach, large or small, it’s hard to get your business to match pace with the newfound industry as a whole. Many start-ups tend to make the same mistakes when they have a truly impressive cause but poor execution.

While your idea may be exciting and unique, the concept of running a business remains the same. The divide between your motivation and mindset is an important one to recognise, you have to realise that by achieving conventional business goals, you are by extension achieving the social ones you initially set out to solve.

“If you focus on the value you can offer to your customers, and to be broader, stakeholders, you’ll see the benefits of that,” says Ammar Mirza, Founder and Chairman of Asian Business Connexions

Ammar says that “social entrepreneurs tend to focus primarily on the social impact,” highlighting that this can be tricky for starting businesses: “the likelihood of you having a sustainable business model is quite challenging.”

“A bit of advice is to look at your business model, revisit your business model, I appreciate that might be hard when you don’t see it as a business but you need to see it as a business and ensure its capturing and delivering consistent value,” he explains.

Gavriel Landau, Co-Founder of Charm Impact has some wisdom to add on to Ammar’s, making sure to quickly squash the misconception that you should primarily be focusing on the social issues of your business: “You are fundamentally doing good when you’re making money,” he says, “focusing on making money because you’ve already embedded sustainability into what you’re doing anyway, by you focusing on your bottom line, you’re automatically helping more people.”

It seems that to come out on top in this new age of business, you must occasionally resort to old methods. Focusing on profits can further the cause you have significantly more than primarily putting all your time and resources into combatting those issues in the initial phase of your business. 

Veronica Bamford-Deane, Managing Director at Work For Good explains that even if you’re not actively focusing 100% of your time and resources on social issues, there’s still ways you can contribute to the cause.

“Instead of asking small businesses to run a marathon, or get their employees involved when a lot don’t have employees, we encourage them to give through their sales. It’s a really sustainable way to give, if you’re working, or selling, you’re likely to make a small bit of profit to donate to charity.”

Reflecting on her own experience in business, Veronica says that her own business asks one important question: “How can we encourage companies to have a positive social and environmental impact to the benefit of themselves as well,” evidently this should be something all start-ups and SME’s should be asking themselves, rather than overextending towards a cause that would be forwarded more effectively if they were to stay somewhat traditional.

Increased adoption of sustainability

With the surge in sustainability in recent years, business after business is addressing previously overlooked social issues. While it’s a breath of fresh air for big and small businesses alike to tackle such problems, could the impressive increase in population in areas of sustainability saturate the field and detract from other, more important causes?

Alison Hargreaves, Managing Director at Guides For Brides believes that there’s definitely potential for the market to become overcrowded, “I think potentially it could become an overcrowded market,” she says, attributing the vast increase of participants in the new sustainability trend to businesses “weaving it into everything they do,” though not a bad thing, as she believes all businesses should be considering their own social impact.

Jonathon Waggott, Managing Director and owner at Angel Guard agrees with Allison and assures that his own business has its priorities straight: “We as a business obviously have a goal of making profit, but equally we set businesses up to have a social impact. We have tried to weave that social impact into everything we do, we find by doing that we have a much easier time getting people to come to work for us, especially younger people.”

Jess Thompson, Founder and CEO of Migrateful echoes Allison’s points, “every business should be thinking about the planet and its people, and that seems like the direction it’s going. As Jonathon raised, younger people are seeming to now expect that,” she says, “making money can sometimes conflict with your mission, I definitely find when I’m strategizing, there’s a conflict there. For example, we earn a lot of our money from selling cookery classes to the general public. But what we really want to be doing is changing attitudes towards migration through our cookery classes.”

While saturation is certainly a problem that could be potentially faced with all the new faces breaking into sustainability, it can be argued that not only can this be a good thing, but also not a problem at all. More people focusing on social issues, seemingly only comes across as positive from an environmental, sustainable and ethical perspective.

Vicky Roscums of the Enbarr Foundation believes that there won’t be any problem with saturation: “No, everyone’s unique and everyone has a different idea, I think that’s what our own project is all about.”

“I don’t think we could be saturated because all of us here could work brilliantly together in different ways, I think it’s all about collaboration, joining together and having your own uniqueness. What could help one person might not help the other.”

Target audience

One such benefit of building sustainability alongside your business, brand and its practices is appealing to a younger demographic. With conscious consumerism on the rise, specifically in a younger generation, Alejandra de Brunner, founder and CEO of The Ethos Network has some points to make about appealing to that demographic:

“When we looked at our own model, what used to get pushed as a CSR (corporate social responsibility) budget is now the whole budget. To target a teenager, we know we need to integrate the social aspect into it.”

“It’s interesting to see how over the next 10 years, businesses, because they either see gen Z as the future employees, or rather because they want to please the generation, they have to take it into account. I think it’s really interesting how it’s reflected across different industries.”

Starting up

It can be especially rough starting up, ironically even more so if you have good intentions. The passion and ideas you have for social, environmental or ethical issues might be your drive but the support you need and directions you need to take sometimes require a much more complex approach than passion

Sol Escobar, Founder and Director of Give Your Best, no stranger to the stressful start-up process, gives some insight into the struggles she went through starting up her socially impactful business, or rather turning her social impact passion into a business itself:

“We’re incredibly new, we launched over a year ago” Sol says, “I don’t have any experience, I’ve had to learn a lot. We have focused entirely for the past year on the social side.”

“I didn’t start a business for good, rather I started with good and tried to turn that into a business,” Sol continues, highlighting the stresses she experienced working not only full time alongside her entrepreneurial venture, but also being enrolled in University.

Sol herself finds the advice given very helpful by the other roundtable participants and opens up about some of the avenues she went down when seeking advice for her business: “I did seek advice last year when I first started, I wasn’t sure if we should go down the charity route or the social enterprise route,” she says, “along the way talking to people it became clear it was very complicated deciding which way to go.”

While sustainability is an increasingly important aspect of any business that should be weaved into the model where possible, forcing social issues into the limelight when it comes to pitching your brand can seem disingenuous. Darshita Gilles, Founder and CEO of Maanch highlights the importance of sustainability, but also the importance of not forcing it into your business, especially when it comes to seeking investment:

Darshita says everyone’s understanding of impact and sustainability is different when it comes to the steps that need to be taken, whether that be internally or externally. “We are in very early evolutionary stages of defining and making that distinction precise,” she says, “we have so many different practices now, so it’s hard to tell which organisations are genuine and aren’t.”

“I think there’s a larger sort of trend in the investment world that there’s no longer just risk and return, there’s a non-financial element that needs to be measured,” says Darshita, highlighting the change in culture when it comes to investing that may encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to play up their concern for social issues.

“When I speak to some of the early stage start-ups and entrepreneurs about how they can include a (social) impact lens when seeking investments, I always say don’t try and make it look all green.”

“Instead of just painting the whole thing green, highlight how you are taking care, ensuring equal pay, or ensuring you’re sourcing your materials responsibly etc. How this sort of risk may not give you the kind of returns you’re looking for in the early years, it’s still going to deliver business value, investment value, a huge return to investors and will award reputational risk. Start communicating that this is a risk, but how you’re mitigating it.”

The great points from Darshita are built on by Amanda McCourt, Co-Founder of Pantee, who thinks that primarily relying on marketing your business as sustainable is a bad move. Variety should be had when it comes to promoting or pitching your business, while being sustainable is an important aspect of any business, it shouldn’t be the primary one when marketing yourself, especially to investors.

“I think it’s really important to not lead with your marketing being primarily about sustainability,” mentions Amanda. Though she initially led with the kickstarter campaign of being the first underwear brand to be made from up-cycled t-shirts in her own marketing campaign, Amanda attests that the brand has grown over the years and “the number one important thing to our customers is the underwear works and is comfortable.”

While the primary concern for most brands should be their product effectiveness, Amanda says that doesn’t detract from the sustainability side either and utilising the success of your product can lead you to create a further positive impact and “grow that over the years.”

Stronger Together

Reflecting on the insightful session, Jon Dawson, partner at haysmacintyre made sure to not undersell the impact businesses gearing themselves towards sustainability and other social issues are having on the world at large: “With individuals and businesses taking more interest in creating positive social impact, social enterprises and businesses who put sustainability and impact at the heart of what they do, are creating significant change in society. Whilst collective responsibility is likely to have the biggest impact, those who attended the roundtable are amongst those spearheading social change and putting impact at the heart of everything they do in business and charity. It was a pleasure to host a group of like minded individuals who shared their thoughts on how to stand out from the crowd.”

Social enterprises – standing out when everyone wants to do good

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