Leading a social enterprise has always been challenging, even under the best conditions. Social entrepreneurs need to quickly master a tremendous range of skills, from building a fantastic product, to nailing go-to-market efforts, raising money and managing a board, all while figuring out hiring, culture and compensation. Starting a social enterprise is also a lonely endeavor, one that forces founders to make difficult decisions every day with imperfect information. While triaging these challenges, eventually every founder runs headfirst into a problem they haven’t seen before, the kind that leaves them unsure of where to start.
Although we’re living in unprecedented times and every path is unique, we found that some lessons come in handy over and over again. News and stress about the coronavirus from around the world are creating significant uncertainty among leaders, employees and customers. Beyond common sense measures, we wanted to provide a list of practical tips, tactics and strategies to help you make quick and needed decisions to help you navigate through these stormy times.
Give Yourself Space to Personally Navigate the Crisis
We’re all familiar with one of the main social enterprise disadvantages—burnout—and perhaps some more intimately than others. The social entrepreneurship game is a tough one. Running a business that is sustainable whilst also accomplishing a social mission comes with a variety of challenges—and this is on a good day. We’re all faced with a crisis unlike what we’ve ever seen before. And for us in the social impact world, this brings about uncertainty, frustration, disappointment, and downright failure.
We can see the potential framing of a crisis as an opportunity, but only if we put our well-being and our mental health first. This isn’t to say that you should just throw in the towel and call it quits, resigning yourself to a social mission of Netflix binging, but it does mean that your organisation and your outreach are dependent upon your well-being.
While there’s a scarcity of research that has tracked the burnout rate, we can assume that crises like the one we are facing are complicit in some of these cases. In any purpose-driven venture, we’re going to be faced with both financial and social goals and many times our unwavering passion will get the way of taking a break.
Think of yourself as the foundation or the pillars of your social enterprise. If you begin to crack, your whole mission is at risk of crumbling. Going into ‘crisis mode’ can actually do more harm than good, leading to decision errors that not only impact you but your stakeholders, but your mission as well. Your organisation’s top asset is your mental capacity, and if you need a week or two to get your bearings and re-group mentally and physically, take it.
Create Shared Meaning
Even in this time of social isolation, collective negotiation and perspectives have never been more important. Even if you have to incorporate innovative ways to do so (Zoom meetings, online surveys, etc.), involve employees, volunteers, stakeholders, and the whole community in the sensemaking process. While this crisis certainly isn’t the ‘great equaliser’ it was initially purported to be, there is some power in the sense that we’re all experiencing it in some way. Using the current environment as a platform by which you can incorporate a variety of new stakeholders, this will not only contribute to short-term aims but also long-term sustainability.
Develop Crisis Communication Skills
In the social enterprise world, many of us have experience dealing with victims of some crisis or another. Unfortunately, however, this pandemic compounds what many people in marginalised communities have already been experiencing. Now, more than ever, crisis communication is essential. This won’t come as a shock to anyone in the social impact world, but the most important facet of crisis communication is compassion. Let those impacted by the pandemic know that you’re aware of what they’re facing and that you’re empathetic to their plight.
Beyond conveying your organisation’s humanity towards those who are struggling, use this time to reach out to individuals and organisations in your network. Now is the time to come together, and even if you don’t have any particular aims for getting in touch, simply letting an organisation or an individual know that you’re still there can have a lot of meaning—and could even present an unexpected opportunity for collaboration or support.
This goes for your general group of supporters and customers as well. Use this time to stay up to date on social media. Taking a break for a few weeks to realign your strategy? Let everyone know. Still committed to providing the service or product you’ve been known for years? Let your followers know that too. Share how current events have impacted your organisation and what changes followers can anticipate. The pandemic has boosted social media consumption, and now might be the perfect time to connect with your audience.
Welcome Novel Opportunities
If you’re hoping for a detailed strategy with how to navigate the current crisis, you’re out of luck. The present time is forcing many social enterprises in Australia and abroad to rethink their priorities and determine new opportunities that allow them to sustain their business while continuing to facilitate positive impacts.
Many of us are familiar with the financial-social return gap, and we have experience of being faced with funding difficulties and wavering profits. That is to say, many of us are experienced with unusual strategies when it comes to keeping our organisations funded and thriving. Crisis funding is indeed a new curve ball being thrown in our direction, but one that we are prepared to hit, nonetheless.
Not only are we capable of getting creative when it comes to obtaining funding, but funders around the world are also shifting their practices to help support our needs. There’s a growing number of funders who are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the pressures faced by the social sector. Pledges have been signed in places like the UK, the US, and Sub-Saharan Africa to loosen restrictions regarding current and new grants, and some funders have opened up new finance streams. On a smaller scale, individual corporations and governments are providing small businesses and nonprofits with free or low cost tools to help them get through these trying times.