Oct. 21, 2021, 12:40 p.m.

The secrets behind being a successful social entrepreneur

Richard Gorvett Written by
Richard Gorvett
global expertise blogpost

 

Richard Gorvett has over 17 years of experience in the field of social entrepreneurship - in Europe, Africa and the US. He joined Reach for Change back in 2013 and has been an invaluable part of the development of our support programs for social entrepreneurs - first as country manager in Tanzania, and for the past five years as Global Program and Impact Director, until August 2021, when Shifteh Malithano took over from him. 

Upon continuing his journey outside of Reach for Change, we asked Richard  to share his insights from working with hundreds of social entrepreneurs worldwide. What is the common denominator between them all? What are the success factors and common mistakes? And what would he advise all who have taken upon the path of social entrepreneurship? His blog post gives answers to all those important questions.

 

Being an entrepreneur is being a juggler. You are juggling priorities and resources. “I have limited resources and too many things to do. Where should I be spending my resources?” Successful social entrepreneurs have big visions but are also extremely pragmatic. Having a clear vision of what you are trying to create is critical, but actually getting there  will require you to be able to say “yes, this isn't perfect, but it's good enough for us to get to the next level”.  Being an entrepreneur is therefore a constant balance between pragmatism and idealism. Constraints will mean you can’t be perfect all the way. Let’s take data and evidence of impact as an example. It’s critical that you gather evidence around the efficacy of your solution, but building the machinery to gather concrete evidence takes time and resources. This means a lot of early stage social entrepreneurs neglect data gathering at all. But without data, at best you are slowing down your learning curve, and at worst you could be wasting your time and energy on something that doesn’t actually work. The art is therefore in being able to figure out “what is the most critical data I need, and what is the simplest way to get it?”.  Nuance and refinement can come over time, but you have to know you’re going in the right direction. Linked to this is the ability to be firmly committed to the impact outcomes you are aiming for, but not to be precious about your “solution”. The most successful social entrepreneurs are hungry for data and are willing and able  to pivot quickly if it becomes clear there are more effective or efficient ways to achieve the targeted outcomes.  


 

Common mistakes

1 - Not having a theory of change. It’s hard to call it a “mistake” because many early stage social entrepreneurs have never heard of a Theory of Change, but if you HAVE heard of it and don’t have one, then I think it’s fair to call it a mistake (!). A Theory of Change is basically a thesis that justifies your approach. Putting one together requires you to get very clear on the problem you are trying to address, the root causes that lead to that problem, the outcomes you are trying to achieve, and then challenges you to look honestly at whether the solution you have in mind is likely to address the problem and lead to the desired outcomes. For a lot of social entrepreneurs, putting together Theory of Change shines a light on the systemic and root-cause issues that are leading to the problem they are trying to solve, and in doing so, enables them to think more deeply about the logic and potential efficacy of their solution. If root causes are not addressed, you will continually just be trying to deal with symptoms and consequences.  Once you identify the root causes, it gives you a chance to work also (or in some cases instead) on upstream issues which have the potential to either  solve, or at least greatly diminish  the problem at hand. Having a solid Theory of Change in place therefore provides a clear,  shared rationale and logic for the work to be done, will help you identify some of the critical data  / evidence mentioned above, and will also be a very useful reassurance to you, your team, and current and future potential supporters that the work you are undertaking is well considered. 

2 - Failing to understand (and accept) early that impact and sustainability are like Ying and Yang, and that they have to go together.  Nearly all social entrepreneurs I have met are primarily impact driven. They have seen a problem they want to solve and they are deeply committed to addressing it. This provides high levels of motivation which is possibly the most important ingredient for any social entrepreneur, as good ideas without deep motivation rarely get very far. This deep commitment to impact is therefore critical, but it often (understandably) supersedes the commitment to sustainability. It’s rare to find social entrepreneurs that are equally as excited about financial modelling, marketing or sales as they are about helping their beneficiaries, and there’s no denying that that motivation can carry social startups pretty far - it’s not at all uncommon to see early teams made entirely of volunteers for example - but ultimately all work needs resources, as without them, your potential impact is limited, stresses will build, motivation will start to wane and at some point this will take its toll,  on the founder, on the team, and on the work.. Does this mean founders should be less impact driven? No. Does it mean that impact work shouldn’t start until finances are flowing? Also no - attracting financial support is often much easier once you have something to show (though it shouldn’t be assumed this has to be the case).  What it does mean however, is that founders should not underestimate the importance of building a robust financial model, that they should prioritise it much sooner than they probably think is necessary, and that if they don’t have the skills to do this themselves, then they should definitely be very proactive in seeking out people early who can support with this. 


 

Advice for Social Entrepreneurs

At Reach for Change we talk about looking for “smart, brave and passionate” social entrepreneurs, as to be successful you will need all three of these traits. 

Being smart is about using your head as well as your heart. When working in such an emotive space, where for the beneficiaries so much is at stake, being deeply motivated is critical. But when emotions run high, sometimes judgement can get clouded. Being smart is about being strategic, logical, pragmatic and objective. Think macro as well as micro. Think long-term as well as short-term. Understand the systemic issues at play. Have a clear Theory of Change. Use data and encourage  a learning mindset in both yourself and in your organization.  Be objective about the efficacy of your solution (so easy to say, but so hard to do when you’ve poured so much time, energy, sweat and tears into something, and is why using data is so helpful as it tends to be impartial). Be open to feedback. Be open to alternatives.  Understand that money flows to value, and that different people value different things. Think laterally about the value you create, for whom, and then think creatively about how that value might be monetized. Remind yourself often you are already smart. You wouldn’t have gotten this far if you weren’t. 

Being brave is about acting against the tide. Become a vocal advocate for the issues you are working on. Remember it’s not about you, it’s about your beneficiaries, and often it’s easier to speak up when it’s for somebody else. Trust your own value and your own experiences, especially in situations where power dynamics do not seem to be in your favour. Remember that people with fancy suits and fancy titles are still just people. Know that “no” often really means “not right now”, and take advantage of “rejections” as learning opportunities. Never be afraid to ask for feedback. Be humble - it takes bravery to acknowledge your weaknesses, admit you don’t have all the answers and to ask for help. Spend time with other social entrepreneurs - you will likely find each others’ bravery contagious.  Remember nearly all obstacles can be overcome.  Know that there are depths to you that you have not yet discovered. Remind yourself often that you are already brave. You wouldn’t have gotten this far if you weren’t. 

Being passionate is about keeping your motivation tanks filled. Passion often runs high early on, but can diminish over time if it’s not looked after, as stresses and strains chip away at it. Be clear on where your motivation comes from and find ways to re-connect with that often. Accept your passion as a gift and learn to harness it - when used well it is one of your most useful tools. Spend time with your beneficiaries. Then spend more time with them. As your organization grows, this might become harder, but always make time to connect. Talk to those around your beneficiaries - you will likely see the impact your work has on your beneficiaries - you often won’t see the impact your work has on those around them. Perhaps most importantly, don’t forget to look after yourself as well as everyone else. Nourish yourself physically, mentally and emotionally - passion will carry you far, but you won’t function for long once your tanks are empty. Remind yourself often why you are doing this. It’s what will carry you through. 

Read more insights from Richard about Reach for Change's 10-year journey of creating impact and supporting social entrepreneurs. 

 


Richard Gorvett

Written by

Richard Gorvett

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