Questions smallLast week, I was thrilled to teach students seeking Duke’s Executive Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership, offered each October, for the ninth time. (They may have been the best class so far!)

It doesn’t feel like fall until I get to share my hard-won wisdom from being a social entrepreneur and experiences assisting dozens of social enterprises across the country at the place where my social entrepreneurship journey began 15 years ago. Even though we often live miles apart, the program’s students ask many of the same questions that I get from all audiences about how to start, seek help, fund and sustain social enterprise. We thought we’d cover these top questions in today’s blog.

How do I start?

Many individuals and organizations start with an idea for a company, but the best place to start is by taking an inventory of all your assets – what you have, do and know. Greyston Bakery may not be familiar to you, but I bet their product has been in your freezer. They make the brownies that go into Ben & Jerry’s top-selling ice cream, Chocolate Fudge Brownie. You can also find their brownies at retailers, such as Whole Foods. The late Bernie Glassman created Greyston Foundation with a desire to start a culinary business that hired “hard-to-employ” individuals. Given this raw material, he could have gone a number of directions with these assets – catering, cooking classes or a restaurant. Instead, he chose a bakery focused on open hiring – without job interviews, resumes or applications. Start first with all the possibilities, and then choose the best among them. In one of our past blogs, we share our how-to tools on social enterprise ideation.

How do I get help?

There are three ways to go – do-it-yourself with internal resources or pro-bono talent (my favorite is MBA interns from local universities – start now to get a summer intern!), hire a coach to help guide the process and supplement your team or hire a consultant to lead the work. (If you choose to hire a consultant, be careful not to rely on that individual to do all the work, as it often becomes difficult to bring it back to the organization to execute.) I had the honor of serving with my fellow coaches and consultants (with huge kudos to Betsy Densmore for leading us) with the Social Enterprise Alliance’s Consultants Affinity Group to develop guidelines for social enterprise consulting in 2015. It is a treasure trove of good ideas and guidelines for consultants and clients on how to structure and manage a relationship that works for both parties and results in success.

What is the best way to fund and sustain our social enterprise?

First, it is important to have a good planning process, which looks at the market to ensure an adequate flow of customers as well as ways to finance the venture via start-up and working capital. People always underestimate these numbers, and they are critical to the ultimate success of the venture. Second, we recommend that you find a support system through a local start-up community or SEA chapter. This support system will help you as you grow and evolve, and it can be a source of invaluable emotional support. Finally, when you are ready, search out local and national support for growth capital. We especially like REDFworkshop for social enterprises employing individuals with barriers. They also have a cohort process (called the Fellowship) each year. We also find many local foundations enjoy helping nonprofits to start social enterprises and will fund a range of needs, including business plan development and seed capital through impact investing.

We welcome your input on the questions above. Feel free to send us any additional questions you have about social enterprise, and we will work on addressing those in a future blog post!

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