Social entrepreneurs are often people with plenty of ideas and a desire to solve as many social problems as possible. Many of us, when we first start our social ventures, work on a wide range projects, products and services in the hope that one of them might take off. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself but once you’re actually running a social venture it can become a big problem.
Trying to do everything is a risk both to social ventures that are doing really well and those that aren’t doing so well but affects them in different ways. If you’re having trouble finding the funding you need to get your plan to tackle youth unemployment through the disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action off the ground, there’s a danger that you do anything that anyone offers you some money to do.
You can only get a £5,000 grant to support the £20,000 costs of your pilot project transforming some disused wasteland in the local area but someone at the local council offers you another £5,000 to run some focus groups with young unemployed people. A few later a local business offers you £3,000 sponsorship to support a community arts event on the wasteland you’ve cleared, and the local NHS have £4,000 to spend on making a video about how skateboarding is good for your health.
The good news is that you’ve now got almost all the money you need to do your pilot project, the bad news is that you’ve somehow got to do three more (quite difficult) projects at the same time.
This kind of plate-spinning act may be impossible to avoid entirely if you’re trying to get a social venture off the ground and you have no other source of income but, as a long-term business trying strategy, it only ends one way – with a mentally burnt out, physically exhausted social entrepreneur and lots of unhappy customers.
A less obvious danger is that your social venture’s going really well and, as a result, you think you have to take advantage of all the opportunities presented to you to do more different and things. So, in its first year, your plan to tackle youth unemployment through the disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action has been successful in transforming local green spaces while enabling 100s of local young people to find work as gardeners and professional skateboarders and suddenly everyone wants your help.
You get a call from a local housing association which has some empty properties and a big problem with gangs. Maybe you could set up a scheme for gang members to develop the skills they need to renovate these empty properties and then help them to find employment as builders or decorators? You’re told there’s a decent chunk of funding on offer to get the project up and running, and you’ve got a reputation for making things work.
You’re really excited by this chance to do more to help young people in your local area. The only downside is that you don’t know much about renovating buildings or working with young gang members but, if you can tackle youth unemployment with a disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action, you can do anything, right? The only limit is your comfort zone!
Most examples of social venture mission creep – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_creep – will be less hubristic and less potentially dangerous than this but just doing anything is a really big mistake, that’s really easy to make for entirely honourable reasons.
One way to guard against it is to have a clear vision for your social venture. That doesn’t mean just doing one thing and never developing new projects, products and services but it means that you’ve got a clear idea of how any new work you fits in with what you do already, and you know why you’re right organisation to do it.
There’s no reason why your venture tackling youth unemployment through the disruptive combination of skateboarding and environmental action couldn’t offer the same opportunity to older people, or create some other equally disruptive combinations (based on the skills and experiences that you do have, as opposed to what a funder might like you to have). There’s never any shortage of things you could do but you can’t do everything.