Five Ways to Approach Social Entrepreneurship in Your Business
Making a difference through social entrepreneurship is an increasingly popular way to do business, where the impact of a venture – whether it is social or environmental – is as important as profit.
For those considering getting involved in this global movement, consider these five ways of how to approach social entrepreneurship in your business.
1. Have a clear purpose
As well as outlining its social impact, a venture should have a clear purpose grounded in its founders’ values that clarifies its mission and guides its actions. For example, home decor brand Lala Curio is clear in its mission to invigorate forgotten arts for future generations.
This can serve as a point of reference – a “true north” – should the venture start to veer off course or succumb to mission drift. For social ventures, this is even more important in the face of economic or financial pressures. It’s important to be clear about the problem the venture aims to solve. Without thorough research, a social venture can risk becoming a solution looking for a problem.
Approaches such as design thinking, or human-centred design, can reduce this risk. The Hong Kong Social Enterprise Challenge – which helps young social entrepreneurs – endorses using this approach. With design thinking, interviews with the solution’s potential users are conducted early.  Such research closes the gap between the initial conception of what the problem might be and how it is experienced on the ground.
2. What does success look like?
By its nature, social entrepreneurship values its impact on social, economic or environmental problems as much as financial results. However, if a venture is working with an established business, different measures of success could be in play.
If the company is selling a product, for example, is success measured in terms of the number of products sold and revenue generated? If the business is a one-for-one social venture – where for every product sold an equal number is donated – success could be the number of socks, shoes or spectacles donated, rather than the profits from product sales. For example: with the ‘buy a pair, give a pair’ initiative of Warby Parker, which sells prescription spectacles, donating more than 8 million pairs of glasses is a measure of its success – rather than how many the company sells.
Where the social impact of the enterprise is more important, appropriate measures could be the number of vaccines administered, girls educated or apprenticeships created, for example.
Agreement on a success benchmark will avoid misunderstandings, especially when a social venture experiences market forces. If investors have different – more profit-driven – performance measures in mind, conflicts could arise. Despite this, however, social entrepreneurship needs to be sustainable and so the commercial viability of the business model cannot be ignored: achieving the right balance is key.
3. Tell the story: be authentic
If you cannot explain simply what you want do, the idea – or the way it is articulated – may need a rethink. A clear human-interest story, told with passion, is a selling point that helps gain supporters, attract investors and build a customer base.
Take the example of Biji-Biji Initiative, a Malaysia-based social venture focusing on waste sustainability, which has a simple and compelling story to tell. It summarises its initiative like this: “Formed in 2013, a group of 4 young visionaries set out to change the sustainability scene in Malaysia through progressive ideas, changing how people look at waste and sustainability issues.” And in relating its background, it starts the narrative in an engaging way: “Biji means ‘seed’ in Malay. At Biji-Biji Initiative, our mission is to plant the seeds of a better tomorrow, today.”
The narrative has to be authentic, though. If it is crafted purely to attract attention and does not come from the heart, that will be apparent. Audiences are adept at detecting businesses that pay lip service to social entrepreneurship and wanting to bring about positive change.
Tell The Story: Be Authentic
One way to assess whether an enterprise’s purpose and message are aligned is to check whether the message is the same for all audiences. Are you telling yourselves the same story you are telling others? If the story differs for different audiences, it could be a sign that either the purpose and action aren’t aligned, or that the venture is becoming too complicated.
4. Find the right people
As all entrepreneurs know, the success of any venture depends on the right people being involved. For social ventures, people and purpose really have to be aligned: when people come on board they should share the same values.
For example, RemakeHub, a venture that tackles waste pollution, needed to bring different types of expertise on board. It has scientists, engineers, artists, and architects involved, and they are united by a shared vision: they are referred to as “Planet Guardians”.
Established businesses can partner with social entrepreneurs to share their expertise, and vice-versa. Businesses have commercial nous about how to build scalable solutions, for example, while entrepreneurs can show how to embed social values into every aspect of doing business.
5. Start small, scale up
If you are setting out to tackle large and complex challenges connected with the environment, health, livelihoods or education, it may be better to start small and solve a narrow slice of the problem rather than wait to build a grand solution.
For example, in pioneering the concept of microfinance, social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus began by lending US$27 to women in a village near Chittagong University, Bangladesh – he did not build a bank from the outset. 
While it is good to have a lofty goal and a bold vision, it is practical to start with small steps. In design thinking, for example, rather than building a complete solution, the concept is tested first with a minimum viable product so that the entrepreneurs can experiment and learn as they go.
MVP: Build a slice across, instead of one layer at a time.
A social entrepreneur also needs to think about how they will build scale. According to a report by the Schwab Foundation for social entrepreneurship, social ventures don’t have to be scaled in the same way as conventional businesses. Instead, social ventures can effect change by changing the systems that contribute to an underlying problem, and scaling a concept, rather than their organisation. It is possible, the report notes, to be small and still bring about great change. 
Making a difference and driving such change is the primary concern of the social entrepreneur, putting the impact of the venture on a par with financial goals. In approaching a new venture, having a defined purpose, a clear measure of success, an authentic story, the right people, and a small, viable, start will increase the venture’s chance of success.