With the amount of financial support from some government on social enterprises and social projects, you would have thought that it will taken off by now, but strangely, you just see more awareness created and not really more impactful social enterprises in existence.
I’ve been involved in many social enterprises in Asia since 2010, and I have seen this sector grow. Social enterprise today is no longer a new concept. I’ve read books written two decades back, regarding social impact and systems change, and things are continuing to evolve.
In Asia, governments have been interested in this industry for at least five years now, and many governments do provide grants to support social enterprises. Just like entrepreneurship, the numbers are growing, but there is still not a significant number of them coming in to solve the pressing issues of society.
I have been looking at this trend and here are some of my observations.
Funding Students. The most common group of people I see that are able to access funding easily, are tertiary students. In fact, many universities and polytechnics push for social entrepreneurship, and they do have in house staff to help the students navigate the government bureaucracy.
In Singapore, many students who go to universities are from the middle to higher income group. And for the groups of students who are interested in entrepreneurship, they generally come from the upper middle class, where they can take some time off to explore their interests, instead of having to work immediately to pay off student loans and support their families.
Many of these students have not experienced poverty, and do not know friends who are in parts of society who experience social problems. However, they seem to want to solve these problems with their good intentions. Armed with some ideas and a vague understanding of the problems, they get funded and start their social ventures.
From the ideas I’ve seen, many of them are simply running a business with a slight social angle. Setting up an expensive sandwich shop and donating part of profits to a charity does not really fix or solve any problems. Hiring ex-inmates and the handicapped to do retail, or work in the kitchen of a restaurant provides possible employment, but still does not do enough to address social mobility.
For those living in the communities may need help and support, if they do not have a good command of the English language, or they cannot articulate their ideas well enough with a good business orientation, it is almost impossible for them to get any funding, yet these are the people who would best understand the problems they face everyday.
Systems change. The social entrepreneur may have found a good solution to support a community, however, if the system creating the problem is still creating more people who fall through the cracks, there is only a limited impact the social entrepreneur can do.
Sometimes, working with a marginalized community, the social entrepreneur can see the full scope of the system he is trying to change and identify the pressure points. For real social impact, the government also needs to consider to engage these social entrepreneurs to understand how they can support with policies which can support the activities of the social entrepreneur.
Policy. Changing policy is often a critical component to change the underlying systems that can create sustainable social impact. However, this is often difficult and politically polarized. With funding from the government, it is also hard to engage the government on a policy discussion if the government is not interested to talk about it. Policy change also have a deep impact on social enterprises trying to fix a problem. Sometimes, policies can also create NGOs and other government linked charities to come in and give freebies, affecting years of good work done by the social entrepreneur.
Lack of data. There may be research and analysis done, but information on poverty and marginalized communities are hard to come by. The government holds a lot of these information and shares only part of the data from time to time, and studies are also considered politically sensitive.
Communications. The communications between organizations and between government departments in Asia are generally bad. Within an organization, there is also sometimes a lack of transparency. It is important for a social venture to communicate transparently both internally with stakeholders and externally with key audiences.
In the context of Singapore, some of these NGOs and social enterprises see each other as a competitor. With the kiasu mindset of Singaporeans, there is also little support and collaboration between NGOs, and social enterprises, even when they serve the same beneficiaries.
Technology. In Asia, many of the social ventures would use technology to solve many pressing problems. However, many established charities in this region are still very slow in embracing technology and innovation.
As such, collaboration is not easy as the technology level is very far apart, and what’s worse, some of the large NGOs and Charities just started to have more than 1 email address for their whole organization.
Cost and pricing. Many people still think that products and services from social enterprises are more expensive. In some cases, this holds true (especially if it is a charity trying to earn money and sell products involving their beneficiaries) These organizations still have the mindset that the public has the responsibility to support and pay more for these products and services. Sadly, because of this, the quality of the products and services are also not high.
Social enterprises still compete with many traditional businesses, but they may have multiple bottomlines to satisfy. Their cost structure may be higher as they need to be ethical with their staff, but the public may not want to pay more for this.
In conclusion, I believe that there is more the government, and the public could do to support and nurture social ventures. Social enterprises and projects need access to information regarding their communities they serve in, and corporations and government can support by using their services, or helping out with marketing and events.
The social ventures need to be better at communications, and be more transparent to build trust and the public needs to give them a chance, trying out their products and services. It would definitely cost society less if these social ventures are doing things right, and in time, they can also build their brand, and competence and scale their operations up to benefit more beneficiaries.
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