Having grown up in a world defined by climate change and cultural awareness, business graduates in 2021 want to work for companies which are committed to their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) outcomes. This generation is not fooled by greenwashing: they want to work for companies that deliver results.
If that sounds familiar, then perhaps you’re one of this generation of professionals wondering how you can build a truly ethical career within today’s complex economic environment.
Rather than working for a big brand with a CSR policy that’s nonetheless going ahead with business-as-usual, you may want to consider a career in the diverse and growing sector of social enterprise.
What is a social enterprise (versus a nonprofit or business)?
A social enterprise is a for-profit business, organisation or startup where specific social impact objectives form it’s core purpose. Social enterprises seek to grow their profits while also maximizing benefits to society and the environment. The profits of a social enterprise are principally used to fund or expand their social programs.
This is different from a non-profit or charity organisation, which rely heavily on donations or government funding to perform their social impact functions. It’s also different from even the most ethical corporation, because a typical business enterprise generates profit mainly for the benefit of shareholders. For a regular business, CSR commitments often run parallel to economic growth, but they are not intrinsically tied together and sometimes compete. For a social enterprise, growth is inseparably tied to positive social outcomes.
Examples of social enterprise
Social enterprise forms a fast growing sector of the global economy, with one in three registered startups worldwide and one in four startups in the EU now having social outcomes at the core of their business model.
The majority of social enterprises tend to be small businesses, with their social programs often focused around providing a specific opportunity or benefits to a particular community group. Social enterprises will also often link their mission to one or more of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
The Social Enterprise Alliance categorise most social enterprises as coming under three main operating models;
Transformative Products or Services: Enterprises that create social or environmental impact through innovative products and services, such as online retailers who connect buyers to artisans in remote communities.
Myoni is an Australian owned social enterprise selling reusable, environmentally sustainable and ethically made menstrual cups. Their product and packaging are designed on a zero-waste model, and their mission is to eliminate disposable menstrual products. This social enterprise partners with the Social Enterprise Hub at Torrens University Australia, offering internship opportunities to students.
Me to We is a Canadian social enterprise selling Fairtrade products and global volunteer trips to a predominantly millennial audience. It was launched in 2006 and now engages millions of consumers and beneficiaries around the world with their innovative ‘track your impact’ tool. Other examples include:
Opportunity Employment: Enterprises that employ people who experience barriers to mainstream employment (for example, people with disabilities, homeless or formerly incarcerated people). Examples include:
Donate Back: Enterprises that contribute a portion of their profits to nonprofits that address basic unmet needs. TOMS Shoes uses profit from the sale of their shoes to donate shoes to children in poor communities, using their ‘TOMS: Shoes for Shoes’ buy one and they donate one model. Other examples include:
Of course, there are many different types of social enterprise that don’t fit neatly into these categories. Some also provide training or financial support to help people in need become self-sustaining.
Grameen Bank, for example, also known as ‘the bank for the poor’ was founded by Muhammad Yunus in 1976 and is one of the world’s most successful social enterprises. This one business essentially started the microcredit revolution. The bank provides small loans and banking opportunities to small business operators around the globe without requiring collateral.
Three different ways you can build an ethical career in social enterprise
If working for the good of the world sounds like a mission you want to take on, there are lots of different ways you can approach building a career in the social enterprise sector.
1. Get volunteer and internship experience in an ethical business, non-profit or social enterprise
The best career research you can get to start with is personal experience. If you think you may want to work for or create your own social enterprise, the first thing you should do is volunteer or intern at several different types of organisations that are driven by an ethical mission. This could include a non-profit, ethical company, or social enterprise. Each experience will give you valuable insight into how different organisations strive towards sustainable development.
If you’re studying, find out what kind of internship programs are on offer via your school. At Torrens University, students can take advantage of the Social Enterprise Hub, which links students to social enterprises where they can intern.
If you aren’t studying, get in contact directly with a social enterprise you admire to find out what internship or volunteer opportunities they have on offer. Or, you can search for social enterprise volunteering opportunities online at sites such as Volunteer, GoVolunteer, and EthicalJobs.
2. Choose a niche and become an expert social enterprise professional
Just like every other business, a social enterprise needs to hire professionals who are skilled in marketing, social media, platform development, management, revenue raising, finance, accounting and HR. They often need to hire these professionals on a tight budget, but demand for these positions is high because people like to work for organisations that do good.
If you want to apply for jobs with existing social enterprises, you should think about the narrative arc of your career and how well it aligns with their needs and goals, and the position on offer. Train yourself in some of the essential skills that a social enterprise needs.
Are you fanatic about climate action? Do you have a network of investors you can tap into? Have you volunteered with a charity that serves the same community? Are you experienced with online retail, or great at marketing on a budget?
If you have a particularly driving interest or strong personal asset, whether it’s a product, skill set, access to networks or funds, you will do well if you focus your social enterprise professional career around a particular niche where you are the most excited to work, or where you have the best skills, connections or assets to offer. Like any other industry, when you start to build up a reputation as a specialist in your area this will lead to more work in similar organisations.
For ideas on where to start looking, check out this list of sites where you can find social impact jobs. If you are in Australia, check out EthicalJobs.
3. Become a social entrepreneur and start your own social enterprise
If you have a great idea for starting your own social enterprise or a burning desire to go your own way, you might prefer to become a social entrepreneur.
There are many different models of social startups out there you could choose to adopt for your own business, depending on your interests and experience.
You can take an innovative new approach to an existing market, provide a new service, or develop a new product to serve a social purpose. Whatever you choose it’s not going to be easy, so be prepared to work hard and commit a few years of your life to getting this project off the ground.
As well as a great idea for a marketable product or service, you will most certainly need some essential business skills, as well as a strong vision and resilient personality. At least a Bachelor’s of Business, Entrepreneurship or an MBA would certainly help.
This list of 22 ideas for a social enterprise is a good starting point to understand the spectrum of social enterprise models. If you’re serious about becoming a social entrepreneur then you need to do some serious market research before you get started on anything else.
Also join your state social enterprise network e.g., South Australia Social Enterprise Council, Social Enterprise Network Victoria; Queensland Social Enterprise Council