Social Enterprise Modelling

Posted on
31 Jan 2019
by
Victor Branagan MBS; MSLS

The underlying principles of social enterprise are fundamentally different to that of standard business. It is not just business with a little bit of conscience stitched onto it. Social enterprises push the boundaries of what we understand business to be about asking ‘what is business for?’ and not just ‘what does business do?’.  As such, it is the cutting edge of enterprise for this new century and is far more complex and responsible than a business focussing on just financial return to unknown shareholders. Social enterprises are not just business-lite but are really business-plus!

Social enterprises need to shout loudly about their approach of sharing value and working for the ‘common good’. As the leading-edge of enterprises they manage to do amazing work with minimal resources because they are driven by a different set of principles than conventional businesses. 

Boomerang Enterprises is a social enterprise based in Cork and was set up in 2014 by Cork Environmental Forum. Boomerang disassembles mattresses sourced from civic amenity sites and private businesses and individuals. It is forecast to work on 20,000 mattresses in 2019. It offers employment to individuals through TÚS, Community Employment, Pobal and Deaf Enterprises Cork.

Here are some of the principles which are key to understanding social enterprise.

1 - It’s not worth anyone’s while but it is worth everyone’s while! Fundamental to sharing value in a world driven by individuated value is the need to pursue goals and activities that are for the common good. Trying to divide the pie of the common good using standard business, legal and accountancy tools often fails to recognise the indivisibility of much of the work and the causal links involved.

The government are planning to ban mattresses from going to landfill and need to put in place the infrastructure to offer alternatives. Mattresses are not designed for disassembly and the recovered materials are of less economic value than the processing costs. Private industry is not interested as there is no accessible value opportunity. There are millions of mattresses in the country that need to be disposed of over the coming years and developing solutions that suits local needs is very important.

2- Believe first; manifest later (activity creates value) – standard business operating system states that you must identify the value first and then plan the route to get there. If the value isn’t clearly identifiable before starting then you don’t start. Social enterprise often inverts this principle and understands that it is through activity – especially shared activity – that value becomes apparent and so you must start first, create and maintain activity and only after time will the value be truly identifiable and fully accessible.

The first few years for Boomerang has required a high level of funding support to build an effective and efficient solution to the problems. As this happens some viable alternatives are being accessed for better disposal of the waste materials. For example, the textile covers may be used for re-cycled bags; the padding may be used as sound insulation products; and timber from bed bases supplied to kindling producers. These opportunities only came about once the operation was established and known.

3 – Sharing value and values requires collaboration – collaboration is not just a new term for networking, but is a skill set of engagement that requires understanding of the principles involved -excellent communication skills; emotional intelligence; and a focus on the processes of engagement. Collaboration must be a voluntary, willing and participatory process free of judgement and cynicism.

Boomerang has identified other social enterprises with whom to collaborate and to help solve problems it could not address alone. For example, collaborating with others allows Boomerang to offer employment opportunities to agencies that have participants but not the necessary operations. Also, it allows Boomerang to offer a better service to customers through taking in bed bases and then supplying raw materials to another social enterprise producing kindling which Boomerang does not have the capacity to produce.

4 – Guided by principles; doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do! Social enterprises operate in grey areas of uncertainty in relation to issues such as boundaries, structures and shared value outcomes. In such choppy waters it is vital that the enterprise understands its guiding principles which can be used when making decisions where there is a high degree of uncertainty and there are several right answers.

Following the money alone will not bring about the activities needed to address so many issues we face. Social enterprises provide a more nuanced and effective business-plus approach to these pressing problems.

Victor Branagan MBS; MSLS is a Coach and Podcaster at www.clearlysustainable.com. He can be contacted at victor@clearlysustainable.com.