the beating heart


the beating heart

When I mentioned last time about riding the waves I didn’t realise how wet I was going to get!  The last week has been filled with meeting with investors and partners and government ministers who are all fascinated with social enterprise and the possibilities it holds.  The challenge is always right in front of me, social enterprise is different.  It is different from the way that the government delivers services, different from the way the voluntary sector pursues a vision for change and different in the way the business generates growth and profit.  One of the most important things I think is to recognise that Social Enterprise is different but that it defines itself not as what it isn’t (as defining itself over and against other mechanism for social change) but what it is.

As a model social enterprise, particularly those like ours which has an operation that is intentionally driven and business focussed, is unique.  That unique combination of business focus and social impact is what offers our unique selling point.  And there in lies the rub.  How do we scale social business and not loose the heart of the operation. How do we scale the quirky environment of a café that our customers love, with staff fully bought into the vision of the business to a scale of operating eighty businesses in 20 cities in the next three years?  How do we scale to that level of delivering 2,500 homeless people back into work and not loose the integrity of the business model or ethos?

This is a tricky one because organisations have a life of their own.  That doesn’t mean that they can’t be managed but that as organisation grow and scale the complexities of interpersonal and organisational dynamics are magnified and more than anything the heart of the businesses needs to keep beating.  The ethos of why we do what we do needs to be maintained.

The story is told of how President John Kennedy once visited NASA.  He came across a cleaner and asked him what his job was.  The cleaner replied: ‘My job is to help to put a man on the moon.’  There is some discussion of whether this story is true or not, but what it illustrates is the cleaner’s complete alignment with the aims of NASA, and the collective mission and strategy.

The organisational dynamic of a social enterprise that chooses to employ homeless people to deliver employment solutions for homeless people is a complex one.  That is because complex social problems require multi faceted solutions.  In a world where the elevator pitch is everything we shouldn’t be afraid to say – ‘it is not quite as easy as that’.

As we scale the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.


About Sarah Dunwell

Sarah Dunwell is executive director of Arena Partners and has twenty years experience in the corporate and business sector. After a number of senior roles in customer service and retail management, Sarah led her own successful catering business and is experienced in business turn around and SME growth. Sarah has a particular interest in the role of robust business planning and development in the not-for-profit sector. Her passion lies in seeing social businesses grow successfully and sustainably through creating mature businesses that deliver strong social agendas.
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