You have an idea you think can change the world. You put together team with the skills and smarts to turn your ambition into action. You hustle, you lose sleep, you launch. You get boots on the ground, make a little change—things are going well. Time to scale-up. But how?
Instead of trying to do all the heavy lifting yourself, or turning to crowdfunding for a boost, why not turn to the private sector for help?
Nearly 50 percent of social enterprises already do business with the private sector, as Nick Temple pointed out in a recent story for The Guardian, adding that “the primary source of income for the largest portion of social enterprises is actually the general public, rather than the public sector.”
So, reaching out to corporations makes a whole lot of sense. Delivering goods and services to the general public is something they are really, really good at. The big news is that there are an increasing number of progressive business giants with visions of using their resources and networks to accelerate the rate of positive change.
Better business partnerships are ushering in an era of smarter cross-sector collaboration, which can not only complement corporate business priorities but also help nice companies finish first.
“On the private sector side,” Temple wrote, “it is clear that there is also a general shift from corporate social responsibility (CSR) to something much more aligned with core business and core business strategy.”
Temple shared several examples of better business partnerships, including the Royal Bank of Scotland’s efforts to support and nurture entrepreneurial talent—young people, women and social entrepreneurs in particular—with grant and loan funding through its “Inspiring Enterprise” project.
This sort of change isn’t exclusive to markets across the pond, where Temple works as the director of business at Social Enterprise UK; change is happening here in the United States, too. American Express, for example, is another company that has made a commitment to help social entrepreneurs shake up the way the world does business. Each year, American Express supports hundreds of non-profit organizations and their founders through its corporate giving activities, which include using management trainings to address the leadership deficit in the social sector and help diversify the nonprofit landscape.
“Serving communities is not only integral to running a business successfully,” said Meredith Hahn, the vice president of corporate social responsibility at American Express. “It is a part of our individual responsibilities as citizens of the world.”
American Express recently teamed up with Ashoka Changemakers to launch the Serve2Gether Consulting Social Innovators Program, a 10-week partnership that matched American Express employees with 16 social innovators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, and India. The goal was to provide budding changemakers with pro-bono consulting and tailored mentoring to help them reach scale or strengthen core operations.
Two teams also received $10,000 each in seed funding grants to aid in the implementation of project recommendations, which included strategies for digital marketing and building customer relationships: BOULD, a Colorado-based social start-up working to make green building accessible to all, and Salud Fácil, a social enterprise based in Mexico City that offers financed healthcare to base of the pyramid consumers.
“This experience begs the reflection: why don’t we or, perhaps more generally, start-up folks do this more often?” said BOULD founder Shane Gring. “Step back, release control, and request help from our sharp friends with corporate expertise who don’t have on industry blinders. It’s refreshing—and, unquestionably, a practice we will continue.”
Gring also cited the Serve2Gether experience and the business coaching he received from his American Express consultant team for helping him grow as a leader: “I learned a lot about my position as the CEO in that it’s not about me and what I can get done. The only way change will happen is if I effectively empower others.”
“I’m learning profoundly how to release, to trust others, to not doubt the ability of my supporters.”
Fernando de Obeso, the founder of Salud Fácil, was grateful for the opportunity to work with mentors, whose business training and expertise helped his team improve the organization’s communication strategy. “They had a great understanding of our target market, which is the base of the pyramid,” he said.
“American Express helped us realize that our primary consumers are women between 18 and 40. Because we know that these women are decision makers and influencers in the family, we can adapt our messaging to their concerns. These insights have given us our best month yet in terms of business results.”
The Serve2Gether partnership changed Gring and de Obeso as founders, teammates, and business leaders for the better. Working with American Express, they benefited from new perspectives and deep technical expertise in marketing and business development. Both organizations successfully updated their business models and honed in on more specific target populations.
Gring says his team will now focus on replicating its model in the Rockies. He shared one of his biggest takeaways from the consulting experience: ditch the green text and leaf icons.
“’Green is dead and ‘sustainability’ is overplayed,” he said. “These once distinguishing terms utilized by entrepreneurs and changemakers to define healthier and efficient buildings, products, and processes now carry too much baggage to be useful.
“We now view sustainability as a process of improving how we do things and how we think about things. This will prove to resonate with a broader audience and set you down a more resilient, and nimble path—especially as ‘green’ business continues to become mainstream and status quo.”
De Obeso, over the course of 10 weeks with the American Express team, was reminded of the importance of market research.
“Interview and talk to a lot of people—clients, suppliers, partners. People at the bottom of the pyramid will literally tell you exactly what they need. Ask the help of a marketing expert to nail down—in plain and simple language!—what your clients need to hear and read to understand the benefits of your service.
“We find communication is critical because if people at the bottom of the pyramid don’t understand your message they will walk away not asking more questions—they may be afraid to seem ignorant.”
Leveraging American Express’ employee’s skills, and their passion to serve, is a great way to tap the company’s resources to help strengthen our communities. And the program benefits the employees too, since they get to use their skills in a new way, think creatively and develop their leadership style.
Keep up with the conversation, and learn from innovators like Gring and de Obeso, on Twitter with the hashtag #Serve2Gether.
If you would like your organization to be considered for the next round of consulting, visit Changemakers.com/Serve2Gether in January 2014 to apply.