The forge of ingenuity: social entrepreneurs innovate through challenges

Social entrepreneurship – After more than fifty years it is still hindered by the perception that all social good should be funded by donations and charity. Yet social entrepreneurs are potentially the richest source of new business principles, argues Hlamalani Ngwenya, who recently co-facilitated an epOnsite training session in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The toughest business challenges often create the best solutions. Social enterprises are one of the toughest businesses around. A culture that prioritises impact over profit often means social entrepreneurs are uncompromising about the quality of their solutions. The market for their solutions is often tailored to a specific community at first, making it difficult to expand. Because they struggle to demonstrate return on investment in conventional business terms, they often end up isolated from investors.

Lead facilitator Magdalena Kloibhofer helps a Cameroonian participant use the toolkit to analyse his own business.

To overcome these unique challenges, social enterprises are forced to develop creative business practices as well as proper internal structures to keep their organisations afloat. As a result, social entrepreneurship is a forge in which business principles are rethought and reshaped. This fosters ingenuity and agility that can benefit organisations everywhere.

As is the culture at the empowering people. Network, these lessons are best when shared with more and more people. I was recently honoured to be part of a two-woman team sharing some of this wisdom in a training session in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of a three-day epOnsite workshop.

The global network has more than 40 members based and working in Africa, and offers hands-on skills that help social enterprises work more efficiently. All start-ups need to be lean, but nowhere is the need for efficiency as acute as in industries that work for social good.

In order to help and learn from 18 participants from across the continent, the epOnsite session focused on organisational development – an area often neglected in their daily business despite many understanding the role that human resources, decision making processes and shared values play in growing organizations.

The Network’s greatest asset is its members, and their willingness to share their lessons and experience with each other at events like the epOnsite workshops.

An OD toolkit developed by the SEED partnership hosted by adelphi formed the basis of the session, which also served as a test for the new tools. I was fortunate to work with Magdalena Kloibhofer, who was the lead facilitator and instrumental in developing the toolkit. Magdalena’s experience working with social entrepreneurs internationally and her expertise on organizational development were invaluable and inspiring.

Together we introduced participants to a wide range of tools that help form businesses that are agile, responsive, flexible and yet still aligned to the original vision of its founder.

As social enterprises grow out of their immediate community, they often have to adapt to match local needs, and can sometimes struggle to stick to their original values. The same challenges are faced by businesses that move to urban innovation hubs in order to benefit from thriving start-up communities, yet continue to employ local community-based personnel.

Their ability to survive in a tough business environment is determined by how people communicate with a diverse team, and how they create reporting lines and accountability. It also depends on their ability to develop decentralized leadership and a strong sense of common identity and purpose – all on a budget.

The epOnsite training challenged participants to think beyond their company organograms. They were encouraged to innovate, to look for new ways of organizing so that they can respond quickly to change, and benefit from different perspectives.

Practical learning isn’t always pretty! epOnsite entrepreneurs go through alternative group decision making exercises.

The training was highly participatory, compelling each person to analyze their own organizational structures, think through the leadership culture in their organizations, and reflect on how their personal and business values compare.

This kind of training requires creativity and patience. Introducing new topics, managing participation and keeping the momentum in a diverse group of participants can be challenging. The facilitation would not have been possible without the active support and the genuine leadership of Carola Schwank and Sabine Baumeister of the empowering people. Network, who accompany the network members around the world.

There is nothing as encouraging as watching trainees have their ‘aha!’ moments. Difficult questions led our participants to important insights. What is my own role, as founder, in my organization? How do I engage with my team – inform and consult, involve and empower, collaborate yet delegate? How can I attract, inspire and retain scarce and critical skills in my organization? How can I create a culture of feedback?

The issue of succession planning raised interesting debates. One participant faced the challenge of building capacity of talented staff to take on more responsibility while always at  risk of losing them later, once trained, to higher-paying employers elsewhere.

Another founder realized that seeing his personal values reflected in his company is what feeds his own passion – and that this can help motivate other team members.

A week after training, some entrepreneurs were sending us photos of their teams applying some tools in their real life context.  Seeing the immediate uptake is the most rewarding thing we can ask for. This gives encouragement to know that the knowledge gained will be used and improved to create better social enterprises that help people everywhere.

About the author:

Hlamalani Ngwenya is an International Development Consultant, Lecturer and Social Entrepreneur based in Pretoria, South Africa and working globally.