Social entrepreneurs, don’t lose sight of your benefactors as you increase the impact of your organization

Social entrepreneurs, don’t lose sight of your benefactors as you increase the impact of your organization

With Anne-Claire Pache

Over the past decade, the social entrepreneur has come out of obscurity and attracted the attention of media outlets, governments and academics worldwide. This is largely because, by identifying and proposing solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, social entrepreneurs have the potential to become the agents for large-scale social change. 

Having a large-scale impact, however, asks social entrepreneurs to spread their services and grow their organizations geographically. This is what we call “scaling-up”, a process whereby entrepreneurs must focus their attention on mobilizing resources, setting up the right processes and figuring out ways to control and share their services with other entities. Scale thus poses a unique challenge for social entrepreneurs: how can they industrialize their organization without loosing a part of their soul? More specifically, how can they maintain caring relationships they developed on a small scale to the next level?

Until now, research has remained silent about this critical ethical dilemma. Our work therefore attempts to address this research gap and explore whether – and if so, how – social entrepreneurs can remain caring while engaged in the scale-up process.

A different breed of entrepreneur

Most researchers agree that the social entrepreneur is a different breed of entrepreneur. While they face the same challenges and go through the same steps as other entrepreneurs, our research suggests that they are different because their central focus throughout their entrepreneurial trajectory is to care. In this context, the term care underscores the social entrepreneur’s desire to both “care about”, and “take care of”. In other words, the term takes on a double dimension of empathic sensitivity and real commitment that makes it interesting and relevant to the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship.

Indeed, when asked at a social entrepreneur where he got his idea, he or she often describes an experience based on an empathic encounter with individuals in precarious situations. The specificity of social entrepreneurs is that they don’t just empathize with vulnerable populations; they choose to take responsibility in their situation. Indeed, the social entrepreneur creates structure to meet the needs of these individuals. However, their goal is to offer – and not impose – initiatives to beneficiaries. This involves maintaining reciprocity in this relationship to ensure that products and services meet real needs, even if it is sometimes difficult for recipients to express them.

In this way, social entrepreneurs set themselves apart from other entrepreneurs not only by the end result that they are looking to achieve – to meet an unmet social need – but also by the process that they follow – based on an empathetic and committed relationship with vulnerable people while maintaining an exchange of reciprocity.

The pitfalls of growing a social business

When social entrepreneurs opt to take their initiative to scale, they risk loosing this constitutive specificity.

Indeed, mobilizing resources for growth is not easy for any entrepreneur, but it is particularly challenging for social entrepreneurs who tend to rely on more complex business models. Their stakeholders include not only customers, but also donors, public authorities or private investors. Managing this kind of complexity puts a lot of pressure on social entrepreneurs, so there is always the risk that they will start caring more about resource providers than about beneficiaries. One of the dangers, for example, is that social entrepreneurs will be more inclined to respond to the most solvable social problems, rather than the most urgent. There is also the risk that looking after financiers will take the social entrepreneurs attention away from beneficiaries.  

Growth is also associated with attempts at rationalization and standardization. While this can help operational efficiency, it often leads to bureaucratization, which can ultimately harm their caring goal. Organizations are led to adopt procedures that can undermine the commitment of staff to empathetic action.

Finally, growth demands that social entrepreneurs develop the tools to measure their impact. The attention given to beneficiaries and the qualitative changes that emerge from this attention can be difficult to measure. One of the risks here is to put too much stock in achievements that are easily measurable, and away from those changes that are more subtle and nuanced. In other words, as they go to scale, social entrepreneurs run the risk of turning their attention exclusively towards monitoring measurable outcomes, and away from the more qualitative relationship they share with beneficiaries.

Go from caring entrepreneur to caring enterprise

The fundamental ethical issue associated with the scaling up of social enterprises is thus the following: can caring entrepreneurs remain caring as they scale their operations? To do this, the entrepreneur needs to build an organization that pursues a social mission while fostering a caring organizational culture. We identified three mechanisms that can help social entrepreneurs reach this goal.

First, when going to scale, social entrepreneurs will not only need to recruit new people to manage new activities and/or new locations, but also ensure new administrative support (accounting, finance, human resources, communications, marketing, ...). Clearly, it’s essential that these new recruits also appropriated the organizations care ethics, even though these employees will not necessarily be regularly exposed to the needs of beneficiaries.

One possible strategy would be to recruit employees who demonstrated care ethics in previous roles. However, it can be difficult to assess this during a job interview. To care means being in a relationship with others, so to measure how much someone cares needs to be contextualized in order to take multiple possible situations into account. Rather than attempting to try to identify people who have demonstrated care ethics as opposed to those who have not, we propose instead that social enterprises cultivate a care ethics in all employees. Specifically, we argue that social enterprises should give support staff as well as directors the opportunity to care and engage in actions that allow them to build relationships with care recipients. Some recent research has shown that corporate volunteering can be a powerful way to encourage engagement and empathy among employees.

A second objective should be to encourage caring relationships among organizational members. More than any other member of the organization, caregivers get emotionally involved in their work, as they attempt to build meaningful relations with their care receivers. As such, they run a high risk of being emotionally drained. To limit this risk, it is now recognized that the ability of caregivers to give care is associated with their being offered care. However, as they engage in the scale up process, social entrepreneurs will most likely be unable to perform this role because they will be focusing on mobilizing resources, setting up systems and monitoring operations. We propose that to avoid emotional burnout, social entrepreneurs need to encourage caring relationship among organizational members. Formally include the responsibility to provide “care giving” to care givers in the role of care givers supervisors (because it doesn’t come naturally). Organizational care should therefore instill the idea that professional competence is compatible with being cared for in one’s job.

Finally, a third objective should be to develop an organization’s ability to listen to different voices. As they build organizations across various geographical locations – networks can be developed that enhance rather than undermine an organization’s care. The notion of giving voice has important governance and managerial implications. In terms of governance, social entrepreneurs should ensure that formal decision-making structures – such as boards of directors – include the voices of all stakeholders, and those of the beneficiaries in particular. Special attentions should be paid to those voices that may speak the softest.

Ultimately, we contend that during a scale up phase, the development of organizational care within social enterprises will allow these enterprises to cope with resource mobilization, process optimization, and social impact assessment, without neglecting their core caring goals and caring processes. The introduction of such an organizational capacity for care will allow these organizations to become more sustainable, not only because it will allow them to avoid mission drift, but also because it will decrease their dependence upon the social entrepreneurs who founded them. Our model of organizational care shows how particular caring relationships can be translated into general principles that can sustain such caring relationships at a larger scale.

Source Research:

ANDRE, Kévin & PACHE, Anne-Claire. "From caring entrepreneur to caring enterprise: Addressing the ethical challenges of scaling up social enterprises", Journal of Business Ethics.

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