How to avoid a sustainability crisis in your social venture

Servane Mouazan


Viability and ongoing sustainability: the capacity for living, developing, or germinating under favourable conditions.

In a recent interview for Ogunte, Chinwe Ohajuruka, founder and CEO of Comprehensive Design Services, says that the struggle for many social entrepreneurs is to, “deliver a socially impactful service profitably”. 

If you are not on top of this struggle you are not leading a social enterprise, but a generous project that – if not robustly addressed - will eventually have a sustainability crisis, putting your beneficiaries at risk of no longer being supported, and you at risk of burning out and having to go and sign on.

At Ogunte, we facilitate interventions that help women contribute to welfare in the community of their choice. We also help women to review their design and operational practices in order to be more sustainable.

In our support programmes (for groups or individuals), we focus on the elements you need to put in place for a viable and sustainable venture. Here is a list of questions that we share with our clients, it is not exhaustive! Check through the list and see whether you’ve got everything covered:

 The Design

  • What value are your services or products meant to bring about?
  • How do you know you are creating something that people really want, need, will use, will be happy with?
  • What purpose do your products or services serve outside their functional objective?
  • What if your product/service has a negative impact? Remember, sustainability is about good design merged with good thinking, from conception to obsolescence.
  • Have you considered the (human and financial) costs of your venture from end to end - from designing it to disseminating it, maintaining it, renovating it and taking it off market… ?

To bring this exercise to life check out our interview with Ruth Anslow from hiSbe, a supermarket in Brighton that believes in prioritising fair pay and happiness for all over short-term profit. Ruth says that her biggest challenges are places, people and prioritising. Namely:

  • securing retail premises when we’re up against the big brands wooing landlords with big cheques
  • building the right team and culture to run the store and develop the business
  • and choosing what to spend our precious time on, both operationally and strategically.

The Skills

  • Are you helping your team fall in love with numbers? Are they able to translate their work into the appropriate value? Are the relevant people trained in corporate finance, do they understand basic accounting, can they scan a budget and spot where it goes wrong and where there is a promise?
  • Are you helping your team fall in love with people? Are they able to translate needs and concerns, joys and convenience, into mechanisms that will make your service/product more relevant, and eventually less costly to you?
  • Is your financial model tied to your business model AND your sense of connectedness? Don’t be naïve, but find a way to create long-term partnerships, that generate clear value to your clients. (To evidence this you’ll need to capture feedback and track how your beneficiaries, or clients grow, thanks to your intervention).

The Pipeline

  • Do you have clarity about your sources of income, funding and investment as of today and over the next 2 years?
  • Have you mapped genuine expressions of interest and are you clear about the pipeline that leads to buy-in?  How do you convert expressions of interest into long term buying relationships that boost your reputation?
  • Can you clearly identify the deliverables you produce that in turn will help you generate new income?
  • Can you provide evidence of how your resource management creates value (pound/dollar/euro value, resource value, marketing value, social impact value)?
  • Are you clear about how you intend to invest/spend the funds generated in the coming period, and how they will also create new value?
  • Don’t shy away from methods such as swapping, bartering, pro bono support. However make sure to identify the monetary value equivalence in your books. You can use this traction when you price your products/services or when you apply for funds. For instance, if someone creates a marketing video for free for your social business, ask how much this would have cost, had it been paid for. If lawyers help you draft legal documents, ask about their hourly rate, but also ask them how helping your business makes their work better.

The Relationships

  • How do you create a relation of mutual trust with your clients and stakeholders? How do you grow this family and keep it happy? I mean… really happy?
  • Have you solved their problem, have you created a place where they are able to grow, or emerge from a negative situation?
  • How can you deepen the engagement so that your clients become almost part of your team and your co-production ecosystem?

To get started with the questions above, you don’t need to have reached a particular stage with your venture, or have downloaded all the relevant templates and completed all the spreadsheets. Look instead at what you have done so far - include the success stories as well as the failures. Put them all candidly on a big sheet of paper, identify the pain points and the occurrences of brilliance (don’t be the only one to assess these occurrences of brilliance… we know you ARE brilliant yet it wouldn’t be fair to the business!)

Then look the questions again, one by one and think about what they mean, challenge your first ‘top of the head’ answers, map your ideas.

Candid Evaluation Parties

Don’t try to fix everything in the first few minutes. Let the insights, and feedback develop and flow.

Have your team or your business partners, associates, clients, friends and other stakeholders take part in these candid evaluation parties.

Then clean up your operations, remove the things that are not working and build up the lego pieces again.

You won’t regret it.

For more support, follow our series on 5 pillars of support to equip social entrepreneurs for tough times. Have a look at our articles on growth of confidence and sense of learning.

You can also contact us here to trial a Thinking Booster or team coaching that could help you shape a plan around your viability and sustainability.

You can also use the Beesmap Toolkit to help yourself offline!  

Company info

Ogunte is no longer operating. We've moved on!
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