There are numerous examples of social enterprises and as many models of creating and running one as there are people to run them. At heart, a social enterprise is a business that has a dual purpose: generating income and profit while also serving a social need. They may be organized either as for-profit businesses, cooperatives or as non-profit or non-governmental organizations. Regardless of the legal structure, the goal of the enterprise remains focused on profit, people, and purpose. And the act of listening is key in the very foundation of the relationship for any social enterprise.
Leading a social initiative requires heart and commitment. This combination gives the enterprise its body, its strength, and its potential for sustainability. Leaders of social enterprises are often personally connected to the cause. Because of the personal connection to the cause, leaders of social enterprises can be mentally and emotionally taxed by their dedication, and lose track of the importance of the nuts and bolts of operations. On the other hand, if a leader focuses only on the operational aspects, attention to the needs of artisans and beneficiaries can cause conflicts and difficulties around production and quality control. Balancing the functional and social purpose aspects of the enterprise is often maintained by seeking guidance from an outside voice – whether it be from a consultant, designer, investor, buyer, mentor, or trainer.
Social enterprises are pushing ethical trading systems into the mainstream marketplace, which present significant benefits to all participants. At first, it is critical recognizing the value of the social enterprise, and the risks its leaders have taken in establishing it. Listening to the stories of the makers and leaders is critical in supporting any social enterprise in its endeavors to build, maintain, and grow their impact. Social entrepreneurs often experience heartache, isolation, and uphill battles and need someone to hear their trials.
Often, charitable projects based on a philanthropist coming from outside the context of needs in the developing world; fail, as they do not take the time first to listen. Social enterprise advisors can fall into a similar trap, where the help feels more imposing and patronizing than supporting. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is, first, take time to stop and listen. The action of listening is not a passive process, and it requires conscientious and careful preparation. When listening, you bring all attention to conversations and actively work to absorb the meaning and intention in the views of all participants.
To support the growth of a social enterprise, listening to leaders and participants is a first step in establishing a healthy relationship and in pinpointing both the assets and the weaknesses in the enterprise.
Imagine the shape of a spiral. The bottom of the spiral is the foundational listening session, followed by action, evaluation of the successes and failures of that action, and another listening session. A long-term action plan should only take place after a few of the rounds of the spiral have occurred. Once established as the mode of operation, listening skills will develop throughout the enterprise network and will benefit all participants, both at work and in life.
This type of approach can feel slow and arduous to some, particularly to those raised in action-oriented and fast-paced cultures. Listening sessions have many benefits and help reduce conflicts and, more importantly, imposed solutions that will never find sustainable footing. Others may think that dialogue about the history and purpose of the organization is not as critical as product development, marketing, or financing. However, these listening skills and sessions apply to all the challenges and need the organization faces and are crucial to an advising process that creates value for the organization. As the process of advising continues, the development and implementation of action plans support the long-term sustainability of the project. A healthy relationship, built on listening to the needs and celebrations of the leaders and participants of a social enterprise, will ensure that action plans fit the goals and the culture of the organization.
Shared with permission from the author: Connie DeJong (Owner, World Peaces) / Slightly adapted by Anneli Jefferson