Strategically Responding to Disruption via Social Enterprise


For a lot of nonprofits, monetary sustainability is high of thoughts. That is particularly the case within the midst of a worldwide pandemic, when funders are shifting priorities to reply to the disaster and establishing new COVID-19 response funds. As funding turns into more and more constrained, the pressing query turns into: Are there methods to pursue our work outdoors of conventional fundraising fashions? For these organizations, the potential of social enterprise—or utilizing market-driven methods to handle social issues—is interesting. Nevertheless, approaching social enterprise efforts in order that they’re strategic and additive to the core enterprise of the nonprofit (versus a well-intended distraction) is simpler stated than accomplished.

Take into account the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood of Larger Ann Arbor (CSC), a well-established nonprofit group that gives psychosocial assist companies to people and households affected by most cancers. Like most nonprofits, the CSC depends on conventional nonprofit funding streams—together with philanthropy, basis grants, and occasions—to satisfy the wants of the neighborhood it serves. After 5 years of offering assist companies, the CSC launched a social enterprise referred to as The Brides Undertaking, with the first aim of making enhanced funding that may assist vital most cancers assist program growth.

The Brides Undertaking is a social enterprise as a result of it makes use of the earnings of marriage ceremony costume gross sales (a market-driven technique) to assist assist the day-to-day operations of the CSC (fixing social issues). By promoting that 100 % of the earnings go on to funding cancer-related assist companies, The Brides Undertaking has had nice success receiving donations of high-quality marriage ceremony clothes and promoting them for aggressive costs. Inside three years of launching, The Brides Undertaking was offering 1 / 4 of the income the CSC wanted to maintain its working price range.

Social enterprise success tales, like The Brides Undertaking, are sometimes utilized by nonprofit leaders and advisory boards as rationales to launch market-based initiatives. Nevertheless, such endeavors should not at all times the suitable answer. Certainly, if accomplished poorly or as a “fast repair” answer in a shifting and sophisticated setting, social enterprises may undermine the core mission of the group. Moreover, in occasions of constrained funding, as is the case immediately, we anticipate that nonprofits may transfer in a reactionary posture towards social enterprise, with out enthusiastic about whether or not and the way they need to enter into this house. This isn’t the suitable transfer for all nonprofits, neither is the timing at all times proper for a given group the place there’s a strategic match.

What nonprofits want—and customarily lack—are sensible sources for enthusiastic about the doorway into social enterprise as a strategic determination. The next framework presents a sequence of questions to assist nonprofit leaders assume clearly about whether or not social enterprise is smart for his or her group and, in that case, find out how to pull it off successfully.

Query 1: Have we exhausted present efforts to boost funds through our present mannequin?

Whereas cultivating new income streams is the first motivation for launching a social enterprise, organizations ought to take into consideration why the income stream itself is critical. A social enterprise shouldn’t be a income “Band-Assist” for extra critical operational issues. For instance, a social enterprise shouldn’t be the answer to ineffective grant writing or different flawed fundraising methods, nor ought to or not it’s used as a springboard towards fast development with out a plan to maintain companies. The truth is, efforts to launch a social enterprise can exacerbate present issues inside a company or produce other unintended penalties, so there must be a very good cause to justify pursuing such an endeavor—not simply the hope for a fast repair.

One other vital consideration concerning social enterprise is the burden that comes with diversification. Diversification is usually touted within the nonprofit sector as a bonus, the argument being that counting on restricted funding sources is dangerous. If a company is simply too reliant on one supply and that supply dries up, the group’s means to outlive is jeopardized. But the truth that nonprofits typically low cost is that diversifying fundraising strategies typically requires the event of further programs to assist them. For instance, the programs put in place for work with main donors are basically totally different from the programs, human sources, and experience wanted to write down federal grant proposals. Including a social enterprise might be checked out in the identical means—needing its personal distinctive sources, programs, and experience—particularly if the enterprise basically differs from the mission companies.

Within the case of the CSC, the choice to ascertain a social enterprise was motivated by a want to broaden the group’s work. To do that, it wanted to domesticate a brand new income stream. Traditionally, the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood relied on conventional nonprofit strategies of income technology (i.e., philanthropy, occasions, grants) and was profitable in reaching or exceeding fundraising targets through these strategies. Nevertheless, after 5 years of operation, the group set an formidable aim to serve a bigger share of neighborhood members impacted by most cancers. This meant further funds have been crucial, however present funding streams have been maxed out because of sure limitations available in the market. For instance, due to the character of CSC’s work, state and authorities dollars weren’t accessible, nor may the group search reimbursement for companies from insurance coverage or third-party payers. As well as, due to the overwhelming proof of economic burden on most cancers sufferers, the group was dedicated to conserving companies free for shoppers. These funding limitations led the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood to pursue social enterprise as a possible answer.

Query 2: What’s our organizational capability for a brand new enterprise?

Provided that social enterprise invariably includes the mobilization of individuals and sources away from the prevailing service line, organizations should study whether or not they have sufficient present capability to assist these efforts. With each selection, there’s a tradeoff. If a company is having a tough time fundraising and delivering on its mission whereas 100 % of its sources are devoted to the mission, what’s prone to occur in the event that they take 20 % of that capability and allocate it elsewhere? This consideration turns into more and more vital in a fancy setting similar to now we have seen with COVID-19, the place nonprofits are stretching additional to fill further fundamental and elementary neighborhood wants.

Provided that sources will should be shifted towards the enterprise, it turns into vital to think about how to do that in a means that ensures the mission packages or companies don’t endure. Desk 1 outlines a number of the key areas for consideration and questions nonprofit leaders might ask to judge the capability of the group. If capability is missing throughout a number of dimensions, it could be price pausing the social enterprise effort, pursuing it in partnership with a company that does have capability, or searching for methods to domesticate capability prematurely of the rollout.

Desk 1: Key Capability Concerns

SpaceKey questions to think aboutStability of servicesDo present companies have a historical past of being properly run and maintained? Is there a plan in place to make sure it will proceed?Historical past of program expansionHas the group efficiently created or expanded packages? Are there classes that could possibly be discovered from this that could possibly be transferred to the brand new social enterprise?Stability of human resourcesIs your workers turnover low? Is there enough assist in place to make sure the present ranges of staffing on your nonprofit’s mission-centric companies will proceed?Workers management capacityIs there enough management in place to direct the event of the brand new enterprise? Is there enough management capability remaining to deal with the core mission companies of the nonprofit?Workers capabilitiesDo workers have the information wanted throughout the context of the brand new enterprise? Do they possess abilities which can be simply transferable from the nonprofit context to the context of the brand new enterprise?Board management expertiseDoes the board of administrators comprise experience in areas central to the institution of the brand new enterprise?Assist of key stakeholdersDo key stakeholders (board of administrators, senior workers, neighborhood companions, shoppers) assist the hassle?Monetary stabilityDoes the nonprofit have enough reserves for funding within the new enterprise? Will the group’s reserves maintain the present stage of nonprofit mission companies if efforts should be shifted from different types of fundraising for a time frame?

Within the case of the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood, a number of elements of its core organizational capability have been favorable for mission extension. The group had a steady workers, board, and management volunteers, who had expertise beginning companies or considerably increasing packages. The group additionally had experience round donor relations and noticed a chance for this experience to be transferred to the client and stakeholder engagement actions wanted within the new enterprise. As well as, core organizational capability was demonstrated via stability of companies, with program development steadily and persistently exceeding targets over the prior 5 years. Lastly, the group held monetary reserves that may enable it to allocate sources to the enterprise each immediately (i.e., cash spent creating The Brides Undertaking) and not directly (i.e., time spent establishing the enterprise as a substitute of elevating cash in different methods).

It must be famous that a key consideration associated to capability is the group’s capability for, and relationship to, danger. Establishing a social enterprise is dangerous. In the US, the variety of start-ups that survive past 4 years hovers at simply over 50 %. Whenever you take a look at the rationale for the failure, a lot of it comes all the way down to a scarcity of capability (recognized earlier), nevertheless it additionally happens when the market on which that group was counting doesn’t emerge. As such, this danger must be named and handled as a professional concern—partly so it may be evaluated and, if the enterprise continues to be warranted, mitigated, but additionally with the intention to contemplate the mental and emotional prices such danger can incur. If the mere danger of the enterprise taxes the nonprofit’s sources to the purpose the place the standard service line is jeopardized, the pursuit might not be warranted.

If, in spite of everything of those capability and danger concerns, a nonprofit does determine to pursue social enterprise work, we advise that leaders conduct each a useful resource evaluation (described above) and a pre-mortem evaluation. In a pre-mortem evaluation, the group’s leaders contemplate the query “If we have been to fail, what could be the reason for the failure?” The aim of the train is to actively determine dangers that can’t be mitigated or (ideally) dangers that may be addressed prematurely.

Query three: What are the potential unintended penalties?

When conducting a pre-mortem evaluation, one of many issues prone to emerge is a set of penalties of motion, a lot of which have been unintended. For a nonprofit, the unintended penalties of pursuing a social enterprise can have an effect on a complete host of vital organizational attributes—from the social enterprise itself, to the standard or mission-driven service line, to the present funding and sources of income, to the funders’ and neighborhood’s perceptions of the group.

This final space, potential affect on neighborhood notion, is usually missed. Nonprofits should ask: Will the event of a social enterprise create confusion about our core mission? Will it affect the neighborhood notion of our want for continued philanthropic assist? Will the neighborhood query our dedication to our core nonprofit mission companies?

If the reply to any of those questions is “sure,” then the group’s subsequent step is to search out methods to mitigate the unfavourable penalties. For instance, when contemplating neighborhood notion, messaging turns into critically vital. It’s important to focus on any alignment between your mission companies and the work of the social enterprise. In some instances, this alignment will probably be clear, and the group and the enterprise will seem to the general public to be pursuing the identical mission. For instance, a nonprofit with a mission to offer job coaching might run an enterprise through which shoppers can work and observe newly acquired abilities.

In different instances, the alignment might not be almost as obvious. In these instances, the nonprofit and social enterprise might seem to the general public to be pursuing totally different missions. This was the case with the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood and The Brides Undertaking. The truth is, even board members initially requested what marriage ceremony clothes needed to do with most cancers assist. Finally, CSC determined to not shrink back from the twin missions, however somewhat to search out artistic methods to attach them. For instance, The Brides Undertaking store shows details about the companies the CSC is ready to present to adults and children with most cancers due to clients’ costume purchases. Observe-up playing cards are despatched to brides who buy from The Brides Undertaking to share tales of CSC shoppers whose lives have been touched by the companies made potential from the robe purchases. As well as, a marketing campaign for costume donations performed on the phrase “I do” and invited brides to think about “I do(nate).”

Neighborhood notion may additionally be impacted by a perception that the nonprofit’s funding within the social enterprise represents a scarcity of dedication to the mission of the nonprofit, or a perception that neighborhood dollars shouldn’t be used for the event of the social enterprise. To keep away from most of these perceptions, the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood capitalized on the robust relationships which have already been established with donors. The senior workers and board members met with key donors and stakeholders, educated them on the plan and imaginative and prescient, and in some instances even invited them to affix within the venture’s growth.

Lastly, it must be famous that unintended penalties should not essentially unfavourable. The institution of The Brides Undertaking has resulted in far more than simply an added income stream. By means of the Undertaking, the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood has change into identified to a wider viewers of individuals, which has drawn in new relationships, new donors, and new members for most cancers assist companies. The social enterprise has additionally led the nonprofit’s senior administration crew and board to develop a depth of enterprise acumen, which assisted within the growth of CSC’s nonprofit mission companies.


Given their stage of complexity and potential organizational danger, social enterprises shouldn’t be casually thought of. Certainly, there are an abundance of examples, some even in the same marriage ceremony costume enterprise house, which have skilled vital issues. This warning to assume strategically is of explicit significance in a second such because the one we reside in now, the place the strain is excessive, the wants are nice, and the choices can appear restricted. Certainly, viewing the event of a social enterprise as a fast answer to the strains of the present world pandemic will possible finish in disappointment.

Nevertheless, when approached fastidiously and strategically, these endeavors have the potential to basically improve the nonprofit sector. For the Most cancers Assist Neighborhood, the institution of The Brides Undertaking led to vital development and the power to offer crucial most cancers assist companies to many extra folks. It additionally lowered the group’s dependency on particular person donors, which affords a stage of autonomy in making the most effective selections for shoppers. By using the methods outlined on this paper, nonprofits can extra strategically contemplate whether or not social enterprise is the suitable funding of their time and sources.

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