“Keep your eye on the prize” is a common catch phrase that for the social enterprise community has come to mean staying focused on achieving your social change goal. Oftentimes the decision to become a changemaker, and accept all of the sacrifices that come along with this choice, is driven by a life-changing experience that has altered how social entrepreneurs see the world and prompted them to take action. From this perspective, it is understandable why social entrepreneurs are so passionate about their cause and devote so much of their attention to it. However, there is a downside to being so strongly focused on achieving social change goals. 

I recently became involved with a social movement whose mission is to transform the city where I live into a vibrant, thriving community where all residents have a better quality of life. An important part of this work is reaching out to marginalized populations to enlist their participation and support. The movement has been fortunate to attract members and other resources in support of its cause. Despite this good fortune, leaders have not demonstrated a willingness to widen their focus beyond the immediate goals to address communication challenges that have been raised. An inattention to process issues that affect how work gets done have led to missed opportunities to build a stronger team and effectively plug volunteers into the network. Unfortunately, this is a situation often encountered in my work with changemakers where social change activities become the dominant priority, and the needs of the organization and the people who work for it tend to fall by the wayside.

There’s no denying that social change work is and should remain a high priority. However, paying attention to the people and processes within the social enterprise is just as important. This raises the challenge of giving sufficient attention to what is happening within and outside the social enterprise without losing sight of the social purpose that drives this work. As my experience with the social movement illustrates, it’s easy to become so focused on goals and the day-to-day work that supports their accomplishment that issues that aren’t seen as being directly related are crowded out from this narrow focus. There are a number of reasons why this happens, such as a passion for doing social change work that pulls attention outside the organization, work-related deadlines, the urgency of providing sustainable solutions that address the needs of the population served, pressure from financial supporters and other stakeholders to show results, and a lack of resources extending beyond social change activities.

Savvy social enterprises understand the importance of investing in the organization behind the social change mission. Blessed Coffee, which is a company that sells premium, single origin organic coffee and supports coffee growing regions and communities where coffee is sold, incorporated organization development services into the development of its Brewing Change crowdfunding campaign to open a local café. I worked closely with Tebabu Assefa and Sara Mussie, husband and wife Co-Founders, as well as other Brewing Change members to provide backbone support. Having a dedicated resource for team development, information flow, meeting facilitation, and task monitoring enabled Brewing Change members to concentrate on the design and execution of the campaign. Each campaign meeting began with a check-in and ended with a checkout as a way for team members to feel supported and get to know each other better. In addition to directly benefitting from this experience, Blessed Coffee’s Founders have shared what they’ve learned with other community groups, such as facilitating effective meetings. 

Investing in organizational capacity is not only limited to businesses. LDI Africa is a nonprofit social enterprise that builds the capacity of African organizations to compete in the global marketplace through the service of young professional volunteers. Gbenga Ogunjimi, LDI Africa’s Founder and CEO, understood from the outset the importance of building a solid foundation that would enable him to bring his idea to fruition. This involved working together to prepare a social impact strategy and develop a nonprofit board and partnerships. Although Gbenga was eager to begin LDI Africa’s pilot fellowship program, he recognized the importance of taking the time to think through the resources needed to carry out the program, how success would be defined and measured, and preparing a solid pitch to partners and financial supporters. A detailed planning process and support from the board has enabled LDI Africa to implement a successful pilot program, develop partnerships with major investment firms on the African continent, and expand its fellowship program to send African professionals to the United States.

Establishing the conditions to operate effectively better prepared both social enterprises to pursue their social change goals. In the case of Blessed Coffee, attention was given to the organization of the Brewing Change Campaign and creating an environment where members felt supported. For LDI Africa, thinking through its operations and establishing an internal support system positioned it for a successful launch. The benefits of these investments have extended beyond the founders and their social enterprises to also include the communities where they work. Tebabu, Sara, and Gbenga exemplify what it means to be a change agent by taking the responsibility that comes with creating a better life for themselves to help members of their African communities of origin tap into their personal power to do the same.

Blessed Coffee and LDI Africa were fortunate in recognizing the need to strengthen their organizational capacity and obtaining the support to do so. Recognizing the need for organizational support is only half the battle; the other half involves taking action. Some of the reasons why social entrepreneurs fail to invest in strengthening their organizational capabilities are not viewing it as a significant priority as well as lack of time, money, and human resources. Social entrepreneurs who choose to make this investment may wish to consult with a skilled organization development professional to better understand challenges faced and options for addressing them. Social enterprises that do not have the resources to hire a paid organization development professional can consider approaching financial supporters for capacity building funds, entering into a bartering arrangement, or recruiting a pro bono consultant.

For social entrepreneurs, the “prize” ultimately goes beyond the joy of working on a meaningful cause and making a positive difference in the lives of marginalized populations. It also includes a social enterprise that is well-resourced, operates efficiently, and offers a place where staff are motivated to give their best effort because they are making a meaningful impact in terms of advancing the cause they believe in and the organization they work for.  

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on March 10, 2014.    

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