2. How should social entrepreneurs identify a social ‘business’ opportunity?

Once again, as I’m taking an online short course on social entrepreneurship, I thought I’d post some musing and share some of the insights along the way. Feel free to post any comments, reflections, or corrections below! 

Perhaps irrationally, I dislike the use of the terms ‘social profit’, ‘social capital’ and perhaps even ‘business opportunity’ in the context of social entrepreneurship, as the language seems to move us away from the language of human empathy and connection. However, for the purposes of this article, I’ll dip in and out of ‘business’ terminology.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that there are different ways or forms of creating social profit – Domenico, Haugh and Tracey (2010) identify the following:

  1. ‘creating something from nothing, such as creating a new market or providing a new service where none existed beforehand;
  2. using discarded, disused, or unwanted resources for new purposes; and
  3. using hidden or untapped local resources that other organisations fail to recognise, value, or use adequately.’ (2010)

Further to these methods of creating such profit, Brock (2001) indicates that there are several stages to creating a viable and impactful social business opportunity. Firstly, you need to identify a clear need from the community members – if the need does not exist (or you have imagined in due to your desire to create a solution) or someone else is already successfully addressing that need, your social business is unlikely to have a successful foundation. Secondly, you need to recognise an opportunity for action (for example, due to the ageing populations in some countries and available space in the homes of old people, organisations have built strategies around the concept of youth benefiting from housing, and the elderly benefiting from company and assistance). Thirdly, you need to identify the beneficiaries of the particular product or service being offered – if there are no willing customers/clients/beneficiaries (or once again you have imagined them out a desire to create a product) your social enterprise will not raise funds to reinvest into the system.

Fourthly, sustainability is key: the business must be able to create a source of income and have a model that enables the product or service to continue to be provided, rather than it being consistently reliant on external financial support. This is what might distinguish many social enterprises from NGOs or governmental programs, although these two types of model now often apply entrepreneurial methods in order to increase their impact via a self-sustaining model. Finally Bock (2001) argues that the founder of the organisation must be a good match for the business and have the resilience to overcome challenges, obstacles and nay-sayers.

Applying this to Reading Spots to help with my own reflection and provide an application, looking back, the organisation definitely stemmed from a community need: initially, the basic need for books to enhance the development of literacy in particular, and for children who could read to be able to extend their knowledge independently. The opportunity for action was a little more complex – certainly there was a gap in the ‘market’ for book provision in Ghana with the government not supplying many reading books to government schools, and most areas lacking library services. There is also a market for buying low-cost fiction and books focused on teaching children to read in rural areas. Furthermore, there was a need identified in UK schools to run trips to the ‘developing’ world, and one that gave us an exciting opportunity to set best practice in the field through founding the organisation on furthering global understanding of sustainable development, effective giving and deepening understanding of the African context. There were evidently customers for the books: children (and their parents) and teachers in the areas we started in (and from our wider experience of remote or even urban areas of Ghana) certainly demanded books written in English.

Despite not being experienced ‘social entrepreneurs’, we recognised the importance of a sustainable model – thus while the ‘Reading Spots’ are free for all to use, we sign partnerships with community traditional leaders and elected officials to ensure that they recognise that they hold the responsibility for maintaining and staffing the facility. This places the responsibility on them to fund a librarian, apply for national service personal, fundraise in the community locally, or ask local schools to contribute a fee. We also increasingly install solar power, recognising that as well as providing consistent light during frequent power outages, that it enabled the ‘spots’ to have light whilst ensuring that the community did not have to pay ongoing costs. Lastly, less easy for me to comment, I have managed to steer the organisation through several challenges, maintaining a consistent focus on finding solutions, and focusing on potential for impact. I am aware that the organisation might have more strategically delivered outcomes had I taken such a course as this before establishing the organisation, but I simply did not foresee the rate it which it would be able to grow.

Community Mapping

 ‘Economic development that is not rooted in the culture of a population can never bring about sustainable development.’

World Commission of Culture and Development, 1995

Community mapping (which might also involve drawing a physical map) helps to understand the foundations of your social business. Important questions to ask (through interviews, surveys and observations) might include:

  • What are the needs and desires of community members?
  • What are the challenges faced by individuals and groups in the community?
  • What are the underlying causes of these challenges?
  • What role could the community members take in solving these challenges?
  • What organisations exist in the community? What services do they provide? How do the community connect with those organisations? Who has power and authority in those organisations? How do those community organisations serve the community’s needs?

Kretzmann and McKnight (2005) (click here for full article)/toolkit) highlight that we should not just base our analysis on the community’s deficiencies, but fully recognises the resources and assets that they hold. Any impact plan should aim to utilise the strengths of the community in the way that challenges are addressed. They suggest exploring assets in the following categories:

  1. ‘Local residents – their skills, experiences, passions, capacities and willingness to contribute to the project. Special attention is paid to residents who are sometimes “marginalized”.
  2. Local voluntary associations, clubs, and networks – e.g., all of the athletic, cultural, social, faith-based, etc. groups powered by volunteer members – which might contribute to the project.
  3. Local institutions- e.g. public institutions such as schools, libraries, parks, police stations, etc., along with local businesses and non-profits – which might contribute to the project.
  4. Physical assets – e.g. the land, the buildings, the infrastructure, transportation, etc. which might contribute to the project.
  5. Economic assets – e.g. what people produce and consume, businesses, informal economic exchanges, barter relationships, etc.’ (Kretzmann and McKnight, 2005) 

They encourage you to ask community members to reflect on what they are able to offer to be ‘part of the solution’. Certainly, ensuring that community members feel that that they can contribute as part of the solution rather than simple beneficiaries is fundamental to the success and sustainability of social enterprises. This perhaps matches with the famous quotation:

This approach was central to the model and ideology of Reading Spots from the outset, and is increasingly part of the methodology as we continue, although this article has certainly provided the motivation and knowledge to formalise the methodology. Every project, from the outset, starts with a consultation with the community on educational needs. The very concept of the ‘Reading Spot’ is to provide community members with an educational space through which they can drive their own educational programmes. When we recruit volunteers locally (led by local leaders) we ask volunteers to think about what they are able to contribute – highlighting that every member of the community can add social value in some way, rather than focusing on deficiencies that are too often focused when it comes to illiterate, elderly, or young community members. We also ensure that we work alongside all the main organisations connecting with community members: schools, district assemblies, traditional leaders, churches, mosques and other educational institutes. It is important to recognise that just because a project is led by ‘community’ leads and is free for the whole ‘community’, it does not mean that the whole community is actually included in the project – certain groups are always likely to be excluded for a wide variety of reasons, and we certainly need to work on our planning for more inclusivity with community members.

This article/toolkit from Rans and Green (2005), highlights the importance of bringing groups of people who face challenges in the community that are frequently held back or excluded by the very act  labelling into the driving seat of organisation rather than always taking the roel of ‘recipient’. The research project I engaged in for my dissertation explored exactly this idea: that the very creation of a centre for literacy development highlights a divide between ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate people’ – study is a motivating factor for a future focus upon adult and youth literacy classes to be delivered. As Rans and Green (2005) write:

Keeping ‘labeled people’ behind walls of service, perception or mobility never allows them to contribute to community, to bring the gifts they have into the center of community life. And community suffers as a result. So, the challenge to those who care about community is to find ways to reconnect the disconnected. As the opening quote makes clear, this undertaking is not about “helping” the disconnected. Instead, it is about building strong communities that draw from the gifts and talents of every member.

Once you have collected this information, it is then important to present it back to community members, so that they can even drive the evaluation process. In partnership with the community members, it is then important to develop the plan for your product or business.  I have observed that many NGOs working in the international context do not fully appreciate the importance of this concept of community partnership, or indeed the process of community mapping. From my experience, organisations often create services or products based on the needs that they perceive to be important priorities, based on the western community context. Kretzmann and McKnight (2005) highlight the importance of community members being present in the control of the project delivery, project design, and information that informs the project design.

Rowson, Broome and Jones (2010) highlight that it is also important to recognise that communities globally are not all shared by geographical locations, but that individuals might be members of multiple communities tied to achieving shared goals, having collective learning experiences, providing mutual support or sharing cultural activities.

We are all members of several communities and our ties with them can increase or decrease. It is both illogical and dangerous to corral people as if they could only belong to one community.
— Amartya Sen

See here, for an article from Rowson, Broome and Jones (2010)  highlighting the importance of analysing social networks in the process of community mapping – ‘network analysis can, in principle, tell us which community hubs or members are best placed to have an overview of existing community skills and needs, coordinate activity and spread useful information and opportunity.’

In the creation of networks, and in including the isolated, Rans and Green (2005) highlight the important role taken by ‘connectors’:

A connector is a special kind of community leader who opens doors for other people. A connector is a person who is trusted, is influential, and has a wide circle of relationships. A connector believes that all people have gifts to offer. A connector believes her or his community is a good place where residents truly care about each other. A connector is always developing other people’s opportunities to contribute, connecting people to new possibilities. (Rans and Green, 2005)

Ultimately, in summary, the social entrepreneur must start with the community assets and desires – exploring community relationships between individuals and organisations is integral to this. Certainly, I have learnt from my observation and analyse of the impact of the Reading Spots, that one of the most powerful driving factors it provides is the network it has created: joining motivated individuals across 7 regions of Ghana in their desire to drive educational change.

‘I think there is a phenomenally deep connection between networks and goodness. I think the reason we form social networks in our lives is precisely to create and sustain all kinds of good and desirable properties.’
— Nicholas Christakis

Cat Davison 05/05/2019


Brock, D.D., 2010 ‘Opportunity recognition: seizing new business opportunities’ in Developing an Effective Business Plan, Anderson, Indiana, Anderson University

Di Domenico, M.L., Haugh, H., and Tracey, P., 2010 ‘Social bricolage: theorizing social value creation in social enterprises’, Entrepreneurship: Theory & Practice, vol. 34, issue 4, pp. 681-703.

Rans and Green (2005) Hidden Treasures: Building Community Connections by Engaging the Gifts of * *People on welfare *People with disabilities *People with mental illness *Older adults *Young people

Rowson, Broome and Jones (2010)’Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society’

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