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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 09/27/2013

Small business advice: How to run a social enterprise

Establishing an impactful social enterprise is no simple undertaking. Identifying your organization’s core values, as well as reconciling them with the competing priorities of turning a profit, rendering a useful service, and delivering measurable impact, can be a challenge.

Our company’s motto, for instance, is “Impact, team satisfaction, and profit (in that order).” As a for-profit corporation, this motto is often met with skepticism, but it perfectly encapsulates the driving force behind our mission — to deliver usable, high-impact, open-source technology to underserved communities.

While there’s no silver bullet for ensuring lasting social impact, a few guiding principles have served us well over the years:

1. Identify your values

A series of words on paper is a far cry from a driving credo that informs decision-making and outcomes. Identifying values means living those values through the everyday decisions that drive your business forward. We emphasize impact above all else as our core concern.

So, as a business, this may mean that we forego an opportunity to increase our bottom line when we feel strongly that our solution does not represent the best fit for a prospective client. While this may seem counterintuitive, we have found that the approach has strengthened our brand and reassured our partners that, when we do collaborate, we will develop a meaningful and workable solution.

Taking the same approach can improve your brand and increase your client’s return on investment at the same time.

2. Build a team around those values

A happy team delivers a better product, plain and simple. Hire a staff that embodies your corporate ethos while allowing them the latitude to explore their unique interests and drive your business development. Doing so will strengthen your company and ensure your values are embodied daily.

Of course, companies must turn a profit to survive, which means ensuring your own company is sustainable. But profit and altruism need not be viewed as distinctly irreconcilable. To the contrary, it has been our experience that focusing on the end goal and service to the target community delivers greater impact, increased team satisfaction, and yes, profit; which leads to the second principle.

3. Think local

Many companies are coming to the realization that they cannot simply transplant a successful model from one locale to another. The private sector is waking up to the fact that the underserved represent an immense market with incredible potential for consumers and producers alike.

Since 2002, our team has built technologies that help deliver quality healthcare, logistics tracking, and agricultural services to urban and rural communities in over 30 countries. We quickly found that successful implementation requires a local perspective — which means we need to establish a long-term, in-country presence.

We take great pains to avoid the assumption that our software represents a “one-size-fits-all” solution. As our staff, embedded with our clients, share experiences across the company, we have seen local demand develop as the driving force behind innovation.

Integrate yourself in your target market. In doing so, your team will gain expertise and be able to identify and train early adopters, optimizing your impact and improving satisfaction amongst your employees, who get to witness successful outcomes firsthand.

4. Solicit feedback

Without buy-in from the end user, your product will fail to reach its full potential, especially in a highly fragmented, localized market. As we expand, it has been vital for us to remember that not only is it necessary for a product to speak to local needs, it also needs to address every user’s ambitions and desires.

Case in point: On an HIV home-based care project in South Africa, one of our managers had a set notion of the data she wished to collect based on a fixed set of indicators. However, after testing the prototype with community caregivers, it became apparent that many of the questions were not directly relevant to their experience.

As these caregivers shared their trials and tribulations with her, animatedly explaining the ways in which they felt empowered by this new tool, they also felt newly empowered to express their concerns.

The end result was a tool that met stakeholders’ needs while empowering caregivers with the knowledge that their direct input played a role in shaping the system.

Empowering your end user to play an active role in the design and development of a product or service renders it more useful and thus, more impactful. Recognizing this reality has bolstered our success, credibility, and the overall sustainability of our work.

Jonathan Jackson is the chief executive and co-founder of Dimagi, a small business that integrates technology into global public and private services to improve human health and wellbeing. Jackson was named the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012 and is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an organization comprised of promising young entrepreneurs.

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By Jonathan Jackson  |  10:00 AM ET, 09/27/2013

Tags:  small business, social enterprise, startups, entrepreneurs, small business advice, business

 
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