In my experience, whenever a new local Fellows’ network launches, there is always a mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm and trepidation. Curiosity about who other local Fellows are; enthusiasm for getting involved in the good work the RSA is renowned for; and a trepidation that is only natural when meeting a room full of strangers. Thankfully, the trepidation soon dissipates as the ideas for how to make a difference locally begin to flow and the Fellows leave full of optimism for what the network can achieve.
But that’s the easy bit…
How do you then ensure that initial enthusiasm turns into constructive action? How do you decide which of the ideas to pursue before people stop coming along because nothing’s happening?
Whilst being far from a new idea, those considering business as a force for social good have been in the minority over the past three decades of profit-driven capitalism. However, since 2008’s financial crash caused many to question the sustainability of such a system (David Harvey’s RSA Animate and Matthew Taylor’s annual lecture in June this year, to name but two) it seems more businesses are putting social impact at the heart of what they do. It’s a subject that many of our Fellows care deeply about.
It’s also a wide-ranging issue, from existing businesses changing their practices to incorporate social goals to new ventures whose whole reason for being is to service a social goal. Last night, I went along to a workshop on social business models hosted by the monthly Surrey Fellows’ Network in Guildford. We began the evening with a short talk from James Marwood, a Fellow with a clear passion for socially motivated enterprise.
After setting the scene with historical examples of business leaders whose weren’t purely driven by the pursuit of profit – such as John Cadbury of the Quaker movement, whose goal was employee welfare – James highlighted the importance of having a clear mission to social enterprises: a “why”. Having a happy, motivated and committed workforce who believes in that mission has a huge impact on the chances of success, as does the loyalty from customers or clients who identify with the values of that business. Social business are often more flexible too, and can adapt their products or services to take advantage
He then posed four questions for the assembled Fellows to consider in relation to any potential new business or project ideas they may be planning (whether real or hypothetical)
Each table dived deep into conversation, despite being made up of relative strangers. Ideas were pulled apart and put back together again. A number of Fellows found the process a really useful way of clarifying the projects they had and I’m sure we’ll see at least one application for Catalyst funding as a result.
Last night was just one example of a group of Fellows coming together to explore social business models but is yet more evidence of a growing interest amongst the Fellowship. Our Social Entrepreneurs Network has been connecting people to support, expert guidance and resources for over a year and our Profit with Purpose group has held a number of events and continues to debate the issue of corporate social responsibility online.
I found myself thinking – are these the questions all businesses should be asking themselves? What else should any new venture consider in order not only to survive and become sustainable, but also have a positive social impact?
I’m sure there are plenty of Fellows out there with answers…