Do you believe that life is a journey rather than a destination?
Perhaps it is this very philosophy that has empowered me to keep moving forward, no matter the mission drift I’ve experienced on my path as a social entrepreneur.
About 10 years ago, I set out with an idea and ambition for change. I wasn’t quite convinced that my career choice as a financial auditor was right for me, so I took a leap of faith.
I looked into returning to school to pursue my Masters in Accounting, but decided to take a different approach. My interest in the topic of Non-Profit accountability and my new found love for Latin America after backpacking there for 7 months inspired a project that I named Simply Sustainable.
I knew what I wanted to do, who I wanted to help, and where I wanted to be – however, I did not know how I was going to pay for it.
Taking the Leap
I was passionate, driven, optimistic, and of course – a little naïve.
Despite not having everything figured out, I quickly made the decision. Instead of going back to school, I was going to establish a Non-Profit Organization with a mission:
To support and encourage accountability in the non-profit sector through education and training.
This brave moment happened in early 2008 while I was still working for an accounting firm and earning a salary. I knew that once I resigned to pursue the non-profit full time, I’d need to bring in income somehow.
I decided to make jewelry using techniques I learned while traveling, sell it, and use those profits to pay my wage and operating costs in the early stages of the organization, thinking that it would bridge the gap between start-up and when the grants started rolling in.
Well, funding proved to be more difficult than I thought, and my jewelry sales would by no means pay the bills. But, I persevered, lived simply, and used my savings.
Learning through Experience
My aspirations brought me to amazing places while presenting great learning and teaching opportunities, but after a year and a half of trying – I resigned, shelved the project, and started selling jewelry full time – hoping that with time, I would return to my non-profit mission.
Selling my jewelry on its own would not be enough to survive, so I jumped at the chance to introduce re-sale into my inventory.
Observing the life of many artisans in Guatemala, I acknowledged that supporting their work would create a positive impact. This is when I began to promote fair trade. I wasn’t certified, but I dealt directly with the artisans and developed a respectful business relationship with them.
Motivated by the beauty of their work, the craftsmanship, tradition, and potential for empowering artisans economically, I sprung out of bed most days that I had a show or market to sell at.
Passion and Perseverance
For 5 years, I made, bought, and sold. I loved the idea of what I was doing, but in the end, my reality was very different. Sales were going down over time, and my vending booth was being used as a soap box more and more.
Though I had the best of intentions and a great passion for fair trade, something was out of alignment. I began to observe that many customers were not appreciating the work for what it was and what I had hoped it would represent – instead they saw it as another consumable.
Beyond the internal conflict which grew stronger by the day, my reality became more apparent – I wasn’t running Simply Sustainable like a good business. I had no real marketing plan, no budget, and no strategy. I was led by blind faith that if you have good intentions and work hard, success will follow.
Moment of Truth
It’s hard to admit that I have a bachelor of commerce with a specialization in accounting, but neglected to take time to manage the numbers. I bought too much inventory, whittled my way into a niche market that was ahead of its time, and did almost everything on my own. I was not building to last.
Something had to shift – Simply Sustainable was neither simple nor sustainable. I had to let go of something in order to move forward towards a greater goal.
Perhaps letting go can feel like a failure, but it is not. It’s having the strength to know that something isn’t working, and having the courage to walk away taking the experience and lessons that you learned with you.
My desire to help and empower others did not go away, but in the face of my own financial sustainability, I had to move on. After all, if my business was not sustainable, I was not creating a sustainable income for the artisans either.
Change of Direction
After knowing the burden of putting pressure on my passion to pay the bills, I acknowledged that I’d have to take a different approach. Simply Sustainable took new form yet again: a virtual space where ideas, insight, and information come together. I promised myself that I would not depend on it as a sole source of income.
I am not independently wealthy, so I began seeking out contract work and freelance opportunities. Working enough hours to pay the bills, but leaving time to write about and research the interconnected topic of sustainability.
My autonomous nature loves being self-employed – I didn’t want to change that. What I needed to change was how I would earn a living. I became a Jill of all trades, offering out as many competencies as possible.
I’ve worked with a variety of clients, many small business owners. If I am presented with an opportunity that does not align with my values or that I am not able to take on, I graciously decline, knowing that other chances will come along.
I’m learning as I grow – it’s been a little over two years since I made that shift, and on some days, I feel like I am taking two steps backwards in an attempt to get ahead. It’s all part of the journey though. Simply Sustainable is a work in progress, an expression of my experiences, and my personal movement.
Simply Sustainable Blog
One of my 4 core values is to create within a Triple Bottom Line (TBL) framework – one that works at balancing environmental, financial, and social sustainability.
The TBL framework is very important to all enterprises. It helps get us into the right mindset for how to develop a well-rounded business model that does not put profit before the interests of people or the planet.
Some will argue that one line of the TBL is more important than the other. Many times I’ve heard people and planet before profit. The key is to balance the three, not to let one take priority at the expense of another.
Since the economic downfall of 2008, making money has been cause for critique. Associating profit with shareholders and the stock exchange leads individuals and companies to downplay the importance of generating a profit – something necessary for financial sustainability.
Although a sole proprietor or small business owner may not be able to give equal weight or attention to each element from the very beginning, it is important to acknowledge it as part of the overall vision, identify it as a long term goal.
This will create an opportunity to educate customers – inviting them to be part of the process, letting them know that their support contributes to achieving long term and sustainable goals.
Beyond the TBL
While the TBL approach is definitely a useful tool for businesses of all types, there are many other concepts and frameworks that will enhance it even further, making the idea of successful social enterprises a strong reality in today’s changing economy.
Paul Hawken introduced the term restorative economy to me for the first time in Ecology of Commerce. He boldly said:
“Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we organize the economy that follows. Either it falls in on us and crushes civilization, or we reconstruct it and unleash the imagination of a more sustainable future into our daily acts of commerce.”
For me, I choose the latter of the two. Although reconstructing the economy will be a lot of hard work, do we really have a choice? I believe that it’s impossible to continue consuming at the current rate without further exploiting people, and the planet. And in all fairness, it’s about time we take a good hard look at our consumption patterns to see how they are affecting others
Hawken goes on to define:
“A restorative economy tries to create a market in which every transaction feeds the integrity of the commons, as opposed to what we know today, when consumption causes degradation and harm.”
Although a restorative economy is not something that you will hear about every day, I believe it’s something you will be hearing more about as time goes on – much like the term Social Enterprise. If we want to work on solutions, we need to do things differently. Status quo won’t cut it anymore.
This is where I think Social Enterprise can take centre stage. It’s a different approach to business, and it offers great hope.
Earned Income Framework
Though the term social enterprise amongst independent entrepreneurs is relatively new, it’s been around for a good while in the non-profit sector.
The National Engagement Strategy – an Imagine Canada initiative – defined the following objective under the framework for earned income: “Financial sustainability and independence of action as means of maximizing impact.”
What a powerful statement.
Social Enterprises have a unique opportunity that goes beyond what is presented to a traditional business.
In this framework, the following was also stated:
“Earned income activities, when properly pursued, provide opportunities to create spaces for experimentation and innovation to forge paths toward greater independence and long term sustainability and to further enhance the organizational mission and impact.”
While this report speaks from the perspective of a charity or non-profit, this framework can be applied to any sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation.
It is in fact that type of outside the box thinking that will mobilize the social enterprise movement as a whole.
Let me share with you the Framework for earned income – 4 pillars – a useful tool when planning and developing.
Financial Capital: The right capital at the right time
Assess: Start-up costs, resource management, budget, loans, and accounting systems.
Human Capital: A wide range of people and skills
Assess: Time management, individual skillset, how you can collaborate, and workforce empowerment.
Market Demand: A well-developed consumer market
Assess: goods and services you would like to offer, is your supply met with demand? What is your target market? Is it large enough to sustain operations?
Regulatory Environment: Well understood regulations and legislation
Assess: tax obligations, trade regulations, organizational structure, environmental regulations, and employment regulations.
Remember: Compliance is an integral part of operating any business.
At the end of the day, it’s important not to limit yourself – don’t allow what’s been done by others define what you can do. Receive advice from the outside world, but always check in with yourself to see how it resonates, and if it aligns with your own goals.
With almost 10 years gone by since I took that first leap of faith, one theme has repeated itself throughout – financial sustainability.
I most certainly am not one to deem making money as the sole function of business – but I will acknowledge that if an organization, no matter what kind, is not putting focus here in a positive and realistic way, it will not have the opportunity to make a lasting and meaningful impact on the environment or society as a whole.
So, if I can offer up any insight from that perspective it is this:
Become an expert in what you know, what is natural for you, and give it your own spin – find that sweet spot between skill, passion, and market demand.
From there, ask the questions: how can I enrich my community with this product or service? How can I tie it back to social impact?
When planning your social enterprise put the word enterprise or entrepreneur before social from time to time – see how that impacts your brainstorming and ideas.
Ask yourself: Is my idea financially viable? Am I financially ready?
Find the balance between paying the bills and feeding your passion. It’s ok to subsidize your endeavour with part time income from an external source – it will relieve a lot of pressure and you’ll likely learn new skills that will be useful in the long run.
Consider this: is there a job out there that can provide me with income and teach me the skills that I need in my social enterprise? If so, apply for it – however try to keep it part time to allow time for you and your projects.
Biggest Lessons Learned
While there are times that a mission drift can lead you away from your goals, there are also times when it can take you on a few detours, but get you exactly to where you are meant to be.
The biggest lessons learned that I can pass along; believe in yourself and listen to your intuition. Don’t be afraid to start over or change direction if something isn’t working. Don’t be afraid to throw in the towel if it doesn’t feel right. A social enterprise is only as effective as its leader. Invest in your wellbeing, and watch the ripple effect of positive impact grow from there.
About the Author ~ Leah Feor
Leah is a strategic advisor and content creator for Simply Sustainable™. Balancing a triple bottom line for organizations and individuals is her utmost goal. She’s a big picture thinker with an eye for detail. Passion for the environment and social impact bring her business background to life. Outdoor adventures, healthy living, and continuous learning are just a few of her favourite things. simplysustainableblog.com