Social Enterprise: A Sweet Deal

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social enterprise


A social enterprise is an organization or program that sells goods and services to advance its mission. Examples include thrift stores, training, publishing, product sales, and consulting. Social enterprise activities may be occasional and informal, such as bake sales and car washes, or they can be on-going businesses. Some well-known examples include Goodwill, SCORE, Open Book Publishers, Girl Scout cookies, and the Natural History Museum gift store.


In some cases, the nonprofit’s existing staff are used to do this work; in other cases, the organization may secure separate staffing and even a separate location and name to run the business. In most cases, however, the social enterprise provides goods and services that are related in some fashion to the mission of the nonprofit and thus the social enterprise plays a role in pursuing that mission.


Unlike grant money, which usually comes with spending restrictions, all social enterprise proceeds can be used at the discretion of the nonprofit to pursue its mission.  So one big benefit of social enterprise is that it enables the nonprofit to allocate dollars where the need is the greatest, rather than where the funder wants the money spent.


That said, it’s important to recognize that most nonprofits use social enterprise to complement rather than replace fundraising.  So don’t throw away your grant applications just because you’re developing a social enterprise!


Today, most nonprofits engage in some kind of social enterprise activity. Whether these are known as business development, earned income, ventures, social business, or for-profit activities, all share the common thread of using the marketplace to accomplish both social and financial goals.


For most nonprofit organizations, training on how to “do” social enterprise can be invaluable by expanding the staff’s expertise as well as their professional networks. Fortunately, many of the skills your organization already has will prove useful in developing a social enterprise. Your organization already has expertise in its area of focus, and it's likely that expertise will give you a jump-start in the social enterprise arena as well. What's missing for many nonprofits is a framework for identifying venture ideas, for testing them and for developing a practical plan for moving forward with them.


The good news is that there are training programs that can fill this gap for your organization. One is the Social Enterprise for Nonprofits, a two-day workshop offered by The Grantsmanship Center.  Full disclosure, I helped develop this training and have been delivering it across the U.S. for more than 10 years.


During this class, you’ll actively learn how to identify appropriate business areas for your nonprofit; turn your agency’s strengths into business opportunities; guard against mission drift; test enterprise feasibility; and prepare an implementation plan. If this sounds like something you’d like to explore, click here for more information. 


— Rolfe Larson

Trainer, The Grantsmanship Center

Principal, Rolfe Larson Associates, LLC


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