Sustainable Development

5 ways business can support and partner with social entrepreneurs

A woman looks at backpacks made of hemp, recycled plastics and bottles from fishing nets at the booth of the company Vaude, during the ISPO trade fair for sports equipment and fashion in Munich, Germany, January 26, 2020. REUTERS/Michael Dalder - RC2PNE91D40P

Working with and supporting businesses that have a social or environmental benefit is one way organisations can contribute to a fairer society. Image: REUTERS/Michael Dalder

Åsa Skogström Feldt
Manager, IKEA Social Entrepreneurship, Inter IKEA Group
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Sustainable Development

  • Social entrepreneurs provide access to employment, food, affordable energy and other critical services to those who are struggling.
  • It is estimated that businesses partnering with and supporting social entrepreneurs could have a positive impact on the lives of nearly 1 billion people around the world.
  • Ways for businesses to get involved include knowledge- and skill-sharing and partnering with local solutions.

Mainstream businesses are striving to increase their positive contribution to society, replacing the old shareholder model with a focus on a wider range of stakeholders. As part of this broad agenda of making business more sustainable, there is much potential in developing partnerships with social entrepreneurs and businesses. This is all the more urgent as the COVID crisis has pushed many people back into poverty and the impact of climate change is increasing.

Why are social entrepreneurs and businesses such key players in a more sustainable society?

Social entrepreneurs are on the front line, often providing access to employment, food, affordable energy and other critical services to those who are struggling. They can also inspire business to become more innovative and impactful. And, not least, they can challenge established social systems to better address societal challenges.

It is estimated that partnering with and supporting social entrepreneurs could have a positive impact on the lives of nearly 1 billion people.

So how can business work with and support social entrepreneurs and business that are focusing on inclusion of those who are vulnerable?

Here are 5 ways from IKEA Social Entrepreneurship:

1. Integrating social businesses into your product offer

Maybe the most obvious, but certainly not the easiest to achieve. Our experience shows that getting affordable social impact products and services to customers requires collaboration across the value chain and the business.

When thinking about working with social businesses, it’s important to start from a business need: Where are the gaps that a social business partner can fill?

This is the trigger that can generate a long-term, successful and sustainable collaboration. Consider how mature the social business needs to be to be able to work with your company?

Does the social business have a plan for financing at start up and do they understand the support they may need - such as capital for the initial and midterm costs in infrastructure, recruitment, and training?

Also, don’t forget culture and values are as important as business goals. Make sure there is an alignment of business and social goals with your organisation. You can formulate common vision and goals using a theory of change.

2. Developing value-added services for customers and operations

Working with social business doesn’t have to be large-scale. There are many local service opportunities working with local social enterprises.

At IKEA we look for opportunities within recycle, repair and refurbishing, customisation and services that contribute to circularity. There are also opportunities in other services like last mile deliveries as well as services for offices and stores. Social entrepreneurs can also be great partners for positive impact in the local neighbourhoods. The biggest IKEA franchisee, Ingka Group has invested in building skills and work experience for refugees, migrants, people with disabilities, young people and women outside the labour market, engaging their co-workers and customers to contribute to their local communities.

The idea is to develop local collaborations that seek to address local social and environmental challenges. By doing this, you can accelerate and empower vulnerable people to move from dependency to independency.

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3. Sharing business knowledge and skills

Tapping into networks, obtaining business knowledge and expertise and understanding business insights are just some topics that social entrepreneurs often seek support with.

Sharing your corporations’ unique competences constitute an added value to the social entrepreneurs. Selected co-workers can support and co-create with social entrepreneurs using their business knowledge and will complement the social impact skills of the entrepreneurs. The engagement must be built on a mutual exchange of competences and inspiration. Co-workers get a broader understanding of social issues and how to create positive social impact on people, planet and society. They also gain knowledge about social entrepreneurship and are more equipped to integrate social impact in the business.

4. Supporting social Innovation

You can also support social innovation programmes and pilots where you combine new business solutions while addressing a social or environmental challenge. This can include grants to innovation studies and pilot projects and it doesn’t have to be too complicated. Here are some lessons to take away:

  • Ensure you have ownership and commitment from management and staff and collaboration between different business units. This saves a lot of up-front time before engaging with potential partners.
  • Develop a process that starts with ideation through to design and testing.
  • Think about using experienced facilitators and network organisations that know social challenges and the social enterprise landscape.
  • Social businesses in fact have very limited resources to invest, as the purpose of the business is to immediately invest back in society, there are often no savings. You might need to consider a donation or a micro-loan to get going.
  • Make sure to evaluate, follow up and celebrate progress when you track your business and social impact.

5. Going beyond your business

Tackling complex social and environmental challenges requires corporations to go beyond their regular business and often multi-stakeholder partnerships. There are great opportunities to partner with social entrepreneurs and enterprises that may not have a direct link to your line of work to facilitate innovation on a more systemic level.

To increase your reach you can also work through intermediary organisations, and co-create or participate in established programmes that support social entrepreneurs in their development.

The well-being of people, society and our planet needs to be part of everyday business practices. Customers’ expectations are changing, and so is the way we carry out our business. This is accelerating the need for sustainability to be part of the company strategy, with direct impact on employees, customers, and suppliers.

Working with and supporting social entrepreneurs and social businesses is one way organisations can support this transformation, start the process of ‘building back better’ and contribute to a more inclusive and equal society.

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