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Just do it?

One of the most popular tweets at the RMIT Global Shifts social enterprise conference in Melbourne last December was along the lines of “the best way to start a social enterprise is to just go and do it”.

There is a lot to be said for ‘just doing it’. Social entrepreneurs by nature are people who have a big idea, take a risk and don’t give up. But ‘just doing it’ without appropriate planning and strategy is a dangerous approach.

Entrepreneurs are generally defined as people who take a risk, are unreasonable (don’t give up), have a big idea and make lots of money. Social entrepreneurs are generally defined as people who take a risk, are unreasonable (don’t give up), have few resources, have a big idea and make a social impact and some money.

If you are a social entrepreneur you pretty much have all the characteristics of an entrepreneur but with a social mission. And that’s where the danger lies. Having a social mission, wanting to make a social impact and believing in your product are all good reasons NOT to just ‘go and do it’.

Working for a social impact does not excuse social entrepreneurs from doing the hard work that any successful entrepreneur has had to do.

The ‘just go do it’ mentality is a dangerous piece of advice to anyone of any age wanting to start a social enterprise – a business that trades for a social purpose. Encouraging social entrepreneurs to bypass a disciplined approach to building a business utilising the insights from an MBA or a Masters of Business or any academic training of any sort, is both risky and naïve.

I have over the past twelve months worked with several social enterprises built around great ideas and led by genuinely passionate people working for change in an inequitable society. Their commitment to mission and making a positive social impact was unquestionable.

But a great idea and a passion for achieving social impact are not enough on their own.

Many of these social enterprises are now facing the heart-break of scaling things back or winding things up. These are social enterprises that had no business plan, no business case for new projects and no strategic plan. In many cases they had no position descriptions, bad governance structures and a serious lack of accountability. But in all cases they held a firm belief that because they are on the ‘right’ side and doing good work that everyone will flock to their cause and buy their product (even if they have no marketing plan or public profile).

In reality, the ‘just do it’ advice makes a nice tweet, but will only get you so far. And the issues that social enterprises are seeking to address are too important to risk failure because of poor planning.

There are many possibilities for social entrepreneurs to develop their ideas into great social enterprises that meet mission goals, make a serious social impact and achieve a trading surplus from which the business can be grown, extending its reach and impact. But to suggest this can be achieved by ‘just doing it’ is nothing more than a nice piece of rhetoric that needs to be carefully considered.

We need to take a ‘both/and’ approach here, where a healthy dose of passion and energy for making a social impact is tempered with sound business planning, to give a new venture the best chance of success.

Why send social enterprises to the wall just because those in the social sector assume they can be excused from working through the same disciplines as for-profit entrepreneurs? Too many great ideas fade in the social sector because of bad advice, and this piece of advice – ‘just go do it’ – needs to be put out to pasture.

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