So you want to change the world? Congrats on your ambitions. Market-driven social enterprises are proving to be a powerful force for change. Each and every day, social entrepreneurs are working to make the world a better place. With the right idea and a healthy dose of commitment, you can join their ranks. But first, you need to come up with that “right” idea. So, here we go Here is how to find ideas for your social enterprise that you’ll want to pursue!
First Things First, Discovering Your Passion is Not Enough
Passion and a desire to help is great. However, by itself, these factors are not enough. If your social enterprise is going to succeed, it has to be grounded in the real world, and specifically the markets and local communities you want to work with.
As Change Creator founder Adam Force puts it:
Passion is an important part of the equation but to succeed in scaling an idea and creating a good lifestyle, you also have to know your competency and market.
There’s no sure-fire process to generate a great idea. However, there are some steps you can take to make your brainstorming sessions more productive. There are also some tried and true methods you can use to test your idea to see if they are viable. Before we get into that, let’s talk about how to approach an idea in the first place.
My approach with this article: Develop the methods to create new ideas first!
I’m going to approach this article from an “ideation” standpoint. In other words, I’m going to help you try to develop methods to create new ideas and solutions. However, this glances over another way to find ideas: borrowing. You should never steal someone’s intellectual property, but you can take tried-and-true methods and products and then apply them in a new community or in a new way.
How about setting up a local farmer’s market? Or a zero or low-waste grocery store or restaurant? Maybe your restaurant could donate some or all of its profits and unused food to soup kitchens? These ideas aren’t 100% new, but they could make a big impact in a community.
Start By Considering The Community
So how should you start with coming up with an idea? First, don’t start with your own wants or needs. Sure, you can and will have your own areas of expertise and interest. Yes, you should leverage these assets. However, if you want to help a community, that community has to take precedence. How can you use your skills to help the community?
The best social entrepreneurs know the communities they are trying to help. If your social enterprise is people focused, meaning you want to directly help people, it’s important to understand the local community. Many charitable efforts, international development projects, and social enterprises have failed, or worse, cause harm, because the people in charge didn’t understand the community.
On the flip side, those leaders who understood the community they were working with have been able to maximize the impact. They understood the community, its needs, its wants, and local conditions. By understanding these factors, social entrepreneurs can craft solutions that will both address local needs and will be adopted by the local community.
If You Don’t Know Your Community You’ll Struggle to Create Change
One of the Change Creators featured in our magazine, Makana Eyre, was working on a project in Cairo. The idea was promising: through Ashoka: Innovators for the Public his team would provide local women with entrepreneurship skills training. As the old saying goes: Give a woman a fish, and you feed her for a day. Teach a woman to fish, and you feed her for a lifetime.
So they set up an entrepreneurship training class, reached out to the community, and invited participants to come to a scheduled training class. No one showed up. Why? Turns out that her team never bothered to ask the local women what times would work best for them. The time they had picked for the training session conflicted with bus schedules, local norms, and other factors.
Fortunately, the solution for this problem was pretty straightforward: communicate with the community and find out what times work best. Gather a bit of data, then act on it. However, keep in mind that the consequences can be direr than simply rescheduling a training workshop. Organizations that don’t understand the local community and conditions can waste vast amounts of resources.
Consider the 2004 Asian tsunami, which claimed a quarter million lives and destroyed ocean-side communities across South East Asia and Africa. The devastation sparked one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts in history. Unfortunately, much of the money, resources, and effort was wasted.
For example, companies and organizations sent countless boats to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, intended to replace destroyed fishing fleets. Many of the boats simply rotted away on beaches because they were not fit for the South Indian Ocean and other Asian waters. They were too small for fishing and for the local water conditions.
The list of other failures is too long to recount, but the primary source of failure isn’t hard to pick out: many of the organizations trying to help did not understand the local conditions.
Travel to That Community and Submerse Yourself to Get Ideas
So how can you actually get to know a community? Or don’t know which community you want to help? Consider traveling to one. Of course, not everyone has the money or ability to simply pick up and move to a foreign locale. However, communities don’t have to be far away and exotic. There are almost certainly nearby communities that need your help.
Are their local refugee communities? How about soup kitchens, or homeless shelters? The world is full of need. You can find a community to help right in your backyard. Often, it will be a bit easier for you to help these communities because on some level you’re likely familiar with them.
Even if you don’t have an idea right now, as you get to know your community the gears will start turning. You may stumble across ideas on your own, or you might find an organization to team up with. Often, members of the community can share their needs, and even offer solutions to fix them. They might lack resources and skills, but perhaps you can help them find the needed inputs.
Identify Needs and Potential Solutions
By now, you know that the community is important. Consider different communities. Often, it’s best to start with communities that you already know very well. If you’re based in New York City, perhaps it’s best to first focus on the local community rather than a far-flung one that you don’t know or understand.
When it comes to selling in markets, your good or service will need to solve a need or address a want. Many social entrepreneurs focus on “needs” rather than wants. Usually, needs are simply more pressing than wants.
A need can be thought of as a challenge or problem that must be addressed. If left unaddressed, conditions will worsen. So consider the problem you want to address. You can start at the highest level. For example, “I want to help poor communities in New York City.” The challenge is poverty.
Now, ask yourself why? Why are people poor? Why is that a problem? Generally, people are poor because they lack access to a good income.
Maybe they lack the education needed to secure a high-paying job. Maybe they are elderly or handicapped and cannot work? On and on the list goes. How can you address such problems? Community training programs? Educational apps? Assistance for those in need? Where can you get that assistance? Perhaps by taking food that’d be thrown away and delivering it to the doors of the elderly?
After you understand a community, you can identify needs, and then you can come up with solutions. Make sure you talk with community members. They might know of solutions. And they might know of challenges that you haven’t seen yet.
Keep The Market In Mind
The market has proven to be one of the most powerful forces for good in history. Simple economics dictates that good ideas will succeed and bad ideas will fail. Charities sometimes run into trouble because they do not necessarily respond to market forces. Donors can and will fund bad ideas.
Social entrepreneurs, however, can and must embrace the market. If your goods or services are failing to drum up interest, you need to revisit them and make sure they are addressing the local community. Something isn’t working. It might be that your marketing campaign simply isn’t effective. Why? Are you misunderstanding the community? For example, you might be trying to reach out to a Latino community, but your adverts are in English.
On the other hand, the product or service you are selling might simply not be addressing the pains and meeting the wants and needs of the local community. You’ll be able to know by measuring market adoption rates. Are people buying your product or service?
Look At Existing Products and Identify Social Aspects
The modern market economy has generated a tremendous amount of technologies and solutions. Most of these were driven by a pursuit of profit. As a result, many technologies and solutions lack a true social aspect. Can you take an existing business solution and add a social element? If so, you may be able to launch a social enterprise without needing to reinvent any wheels, and without having to open up new markets.
Further, you might even be able to find businesses will to invest in your social endeavors. Not only that, but you may even be able to draw in some talented private market talent that can provide a lot of skills. Consider microlending programs, including those run by the Grameen Foundation, that provide cash-poor people with access to funds. These funds can help them break the cycle of poverty by allowing them to invest.
The people who started these funds, such as Grameen founder Muhammad Yunus, didn’t do anything overly revolutionary. The idea of lending to people has been around since the earliest days of money, and even before. Yet Yunus and others realized that cash-poor people often lack access to traditional lending institutions.
By offering a new model they were able to extend lending to these communities. In turn, this allowed the communities targeted to invest in and uplift themselves.
Another great example is Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia. Chouinard realized that his steel pitons were damaging rock-climbing surfaces. So Chouinard decided to create sustainable climbing gear, and thus Patagonia was born. You can learn more about Chouinard on the Patagonia website.
Addressing “Small” Problems Can Make a Big Difference
The challenges you take on don’t have to be grand. Environmentally friendly climbing gear is the type of idea you’re likely only to discover if you’re part of the mountain climbing community. The average person might not even be aware of the challenges posed by gear that isn’t environmentally friendly.
Just the same, you might find solutions to seemingly small or niche problems. That’s a fantastic place to start. By taking on smaller problems, you might tackle issues that people aren’t even aware of, or don’t think is worth their time to address. However, if you’re solving a challenge and making the world a better place, it’s worth the effort.
Next Steps: Getting Your Ideas Off The Ground
Rather than concluding with the usual summary, let’s consider how you can bring your ideas to life. Makana Eyre outlined “Five Things That Could Kill Your Startup Social Enterprise”. Along the way, he also outlined some great tips for getting your social enterprise rolling.
First, get your idea down on paper.
If you followed the above steps, you have hopefully identified needs and potential solutions. Now it’s time to start refining your ideas, considering concrete solutions, challenges, and other factors.
Next, start building a team.
As Makana notes, it needs to be balanced. You need both visionaries and business experts and people with technical skills. From there, you have to check your assumptions. I can’t do Makana’s work justice in a few sentences, so make sure you check out his article. Point is, coming up with an idea is great, but once you have an idea you have to get it rolling, or it’ll just waste away.
Listen to examples of others you can learn from.
There’s nothing quite like the learning that comes from others who are on the ground, doing what you want to do. If you are just starting your journey, you need to learn all that you can from others who have been there, done that. That’s why we created the Change Creator Podcast series. Adam Force goes deep into how these amazing Change Creators started their companies, where they discovered their ideas and many, many lessons on how they grew their companies as well. I strongly encourage you to get listening! Podcasts are great on long drives, or Sunday afternoons, just fyi!
Read more in-depth examples of social impact leaders in Change Creator Magazine!