Social Innovation

Riding the lion of social entrepreneurship means knowing the terrain

A volunteer for an Egyptian environmental NGO collects plastic waste.

A volunteer for an Egyptian environmental NGO collects plastic waste. Image: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Mark Horoszowski
CEO and Co-Founder, MovingWorlds
Jennifer Beason
Global Program Director, SAP Corporate Social Responsibility, SAP
Peter Liu
Managing Director, Deloitte LLP
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Social Innovation

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  • Non-financial support such as mentorship and business advice has a key role to play in building the capacity of social enterprises.
  • Better coordination is needed across the social innovation ecosystem to match expertise with actual needs on the ground.
  • Ecosystem actors must work together to build mutually beneficial true partnerships between social entrepreneurs and enablers to unlock the power of social economy and social innovation movement.

There’s a joke about social entrepreneurship, comparing it to riding a lion. Others may look on and think you are very brave, but you’re thinking: How did I get on this lion, and how do I get off without being eaten? Starting a mission-driven business can be a lonely, daunting and sometimes scary road; on that journey, the right connections and insights at the right time can be as powerful as an injection of funding.

This was certainly true for Wanona Satcher, founder and CEO of khers Studio – a social enterprise working to scale affordable, net-zero housing across the US. Knowing that she needed help to take her enterprise to the next level, Wanona signed up for pro bono support via the TRANSFORM Support Hub – a joint initiative by TRANSFORM, Unilever, SAP and MovingWorlds, all members of the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship at the World Economic Forum. Its advice and support helped to expand her network, receive a skills boost from experts and get her product integrated into key corporate supply chains.

“It helped me to be more confident in how I tell my story to major corporations … It was a safe space to say ‘I don’t know’, and to ask for help.”

The win-win-win of non-financial support

These kinds of non-financial support and partnership frameworks are often overlooked. Inputs such as mentoring, training, networking and more have been shown to amplify the impact and sustainability of financial support. And the benefits don’t just impact the social entrepreneurs; all players in the innovation ecosystem win.

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While social enterprises gain expertise to help professionalize and scale their operations, the corporates and volunteers providing the input also benefit. These kinds of experiences enable corporates to gain the skills and partners needed to build business models for the future while progressing towards their environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals. Employees can also learn directly with social enterprises, and become motivated and inspired by the exchange.

Impact investors and philanthropists also benefit from non-financial-support networks. Nicholas Colloff, Executive Director of the Argidius Foundation, says that these kinds of engagements generate valuable intelligence about where to direct precious resources for maximum impact. “It's important that we, collectively, as philanthropists utilize knowledge to get better outcomes. Some of that knowledge requires us to actually do less to get better impact and hence, extend the ability to deliver.”

Paying attention to what social entrepreneurs need

Colloff adds that the closer you can come to understanding a real and current problem that a social enterprise is facing, the better you can design a response that works. But gaining this deep insight into the thousands of social enterprises – often working in remote parts of the world and each with their own unique needs – is not a straightforward matter. What’s more, this is something of a moving target as needs shift, especially during times of crisis.

Deloitte, also a member of the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship, engaged with over 75 unique social enterprises, ecosystem builders and related experts during the pandemic and found that the needs of social enterprises had shifted: Many expressed increased interest in technology, business strategy and support, and financial planning resources.

For example, the biggest wish of the founder of one sustainability-focused social enterprise they spoke to was to have an international support network and access to resources specific to her reality and landscape to help her manage a backlash from the local community over introducing business as a means of doing good.

Out of this work, Deloitte, in partnership with Agora Partnerships and the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, has developed a diagnostic tool that it believes could help surface these vital insights on an ongoing basis. Social enterprises could use it to assess their competencies and identify areas for improvement, along with the kind of resources they would need to scale. In essence, this could help join the dots better; connecting enterprises to the right support at the right time. It could also help those working in the sector to eliminate wasted effort through better coordination, while also reaching more people.

Shifting social entrepreneurs up a gear

This kind of alignment is a crucial next step for the sector. We know that non-financial support can build the capacity of social entrepreneurs to deliver more effectively on their missions, and that this is key to building momentum in economic and social development.

We also know that there is no shortage of reputable market players doing excellent work in the ecosystem. In addition to initiatives by Argidius, Deloitte, MovingWorlds, SAP and Unilever, other members of the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs are also running successful programmes to mentor social enterprises. For example, UBS's Global Visionaries programme empowers seasoned entrepreneurs working to make progress towards SDGs, while the 100+ Accelerator by AB InBev focuses on finding sustainable solutions to tackle local challenges faced by the communities they work with. Tech giant Microsoft supports social enterprises with, among other things, free access to Microsoft technologies. In 2022, it announced a new partnership with the Schwab Foundation – the Entrepreneurship for Positive Impact Accelerator – to support a unique cohort of 30 Schwab awardees as they strengthen their technology solutions.

But we need to shift things up a gear. Specifically, public- and private-sector leaders need to come together to align efforts and form high-impact partnerships to scale our impact. More needs to be done for social enterprises to achieve their potential for society, economy and planet. Tools released by Deloitte, and reports by Yunus Social Business and Acumen all indicate that social enterprises stand to benefit by increasing access to non-financial support, new partners and new corporate buyers. The Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs is convening a growing body of over 100 mission-aligned partners to do just that, and partnerships, as with the TRANSFORM Support Hub, provide places where social enterprises can access tools like assessments and learning, and make these connections.

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What is the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

Ultimately, by working together, we put the success of the social entrepreneur first. By collaborating rather than competing, we can build a social innovation movement that transforms society for a more just, sustainable and equitable world.

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