It may sound a bit over-dramatic to refer to the big issues facing social enterprises as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” but, having spoken to hundreds of social enterprises in the last few years, I feel justified in doing so. These four evils can scythe down everything in their path, stopping you in your tracks and having a serious effect on your impact as an organisation.
What shall we call them? How about:
Not quite as hard-hitting as the original four – Pestilence, War, Famine and Death – but it’s just as deadly when these marauders invade your business.
What do I mean by them?
Well, Confusion is A Lack of Clarity about your strategy and where you’re going as a business. This is the deadliest of all because without it you can’t go much further and your decision-making, your ability to take advantage of opportunities and deliver impact will be clouded by confusion and, ultimately, inaction.
Famine, in a business context, is A Lack of Resource, which means that you just can’t achieve what you want to, even if you’ve got your strategy sorted out. This can apply to time, talent and, of course, money. You have to be fully resourced and sufficiently funded or the going will be, at best, slow and soul-grindingly frustrating. In the absence of having unending resources at your fingertips, it’s vital to maximize those you do have.
Failure can mean lots of things but here I mean it as A Lack of Enterprising Culture. Social Enterprise leaders have expressed to us many times that they sometimes feel alone in developing their business as just that – a business, where sustainability and even, dare I mention it, profit are key features. This problem can be found even among CEOs themselves who, despite the commercial acumen they undoubtedly have, sometimes still shy away from seeing themselves as business leaders.
And, if it’s not coming from the top, you can’t expect anyone else in the organization to be switched on to the harsh realities of surviving in the world of business. A key to tackling this is developing what we call The Core Habits of Enterprise – Effective Communication (Understanding, Being Understood, Challenging and Transforming Conflict), Plan Do Review, Personal Productivity, Coaching and Being Comfortable with Numbers.
And then Ineffectiveness is A Lack of Social Impact. We’re all in the social enterprise sector because we want to make a difference but how easy is it to prove that you’ve done that? You can work incredibly hard over many long hours but what does it all amount to in the end? What we find is that there is a lack of clarity on how social impact is actually defined and measured. I’m not talking about spending 1000s on measurement, just something that is appropriate for the scale and complexity of your organisation. Understanding the impact and change will ultimately ensure you deliver better quality services and provide the evidence for your communications and for funders, when you’re seeking investment.
So, taking all of these issues together, we can see that good intentions are all very well but are not enough. They have to be backed up by systematic planning and a set of solid foundations that mean your business is sustainable and the difference you make is real and long-lasting.
Where do these Four Big Issues come from, you may ask? I haven’t made them up. Talking to many, many social enterprise leaders over the last few years, my colleague Ben and I have heard these concerns repeated again and again. On Purpose, who also work with social enterprise leaders, have based their CEO Programme around very similar concerns, based on research they’ve carried out on the sector.
These issues stand out as the biggest challenges that face social enterprises and come from real-life entrepreneurs who are struggling to make that vital difference. So often, soc ent leaders we talk to are in danger of becoming disheartened or overwhelmed by these all-pervading issues.
And these challenges are not confined to the social enterprise sector. All business leaders face them and that is a vital point to remember: Soc Ents are in the same boat as everyone else and trying to survive the same conditions that entrepreneurs are facing in the commercial arena. The aims may be slightly different but we’re all subject to the same forces of nature in all its destructive power.
These Four Horsemen of Social Enterprise have given us the pillars of what we do at Bubble Chamber. Our approach to business growth is founded on:
- clarity of purpose (the starting point for everything that follows)
- developing an enterprising culture throughout the organization
- scaling up and becoming sustainable
- delivering social impact
If you can hear the distant thundering of hooves, don’t ignore them but talk to us about the tools we use to help you un-horse these devilish riders and build a positive and effective future.
PS If you’re wondering about the picture, it’s from the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but it could have been taken in some offices we’ve visited!