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Can Businesses Balance Doing Good and Doing Well? The Challenges and Opportunities of Social Enterprises



Social Enterprises

Anyone who runs a business knows that managing a P & L is hard. You have to focus on the bottom line while maintaining a positive flow of business and creating a motivated workforce – which is often tough to balance. As a social enterprise, you have an added layer; the mission to do well by doing good creates additional obstacles when you’re trying to balance the social impact with the sometimes competing need to meet financial goals. As the head of a 10-year-old social enterprise, I have learned that juggling competing priorities requires communicating clearly with your audiences, learning to make difficult decisions and maintaining a clear focus when presented with new opportunities.

Managing Distractions

All businesses have to remain focused on their strategic plan when new opportunities present themselves. These new shiny objects which can grow a business can also distract from previously agreed-upon goals. Nowhere is this more challenging than in a social enterprise where the mission to do good often opens doors to expand into new and exciting areas. And because the business is built around a passion – whether it is pets, people or the environment – it is even more important to scale smartly and not overextend into new areas before having attained stability and success with current programs. Learning to say “no” or “not yet” in a social enterprise is perhaps even more important to a company’s viability than saying “yes.”

Making Difficult Choices

Business leaders make difficult decisions every day – from deciding to expand to new markets to choosing to purchase equipment. In a social enterprise, these decisions can have life or death implications that require difficult and often heartbreaking choices. For example, as an animal welfare organization, we must balance the needs of each pet with our social enterprise mission. When a senior pet in our care needs $5,000 in medical, we have to decide whether to put our money towards that one pet or towards helping 20 other pets that would each need only need $250 in care. And how do we define success when we do go forward with the medical treatment? Is it another month of life? A year? As advocates for all pets, we find ourselves working every day to balance the needs of individual pets with the desire to help as many as possible and run a successful and sustainable business.

Communicating for Impact

Donors, customers, vendors, and partners understand now- and for-profit business models, but social enterprises are still unfamiliar to many people. And of all the things we do, being able to clearly articulate our difference is critically important to garner the support our operation needs. We must instill in our customers that when they are shopping at our stores, they are doing more than buying a product. In our case, they are saving the lives of pets. Our organization continually seeks new and creative ways to communicate this message. Our social media efforts have expanded dramatically, to reach new and younger pet-loving fans. We create videos to convey what we do in fun and lighthearted ways. In our stores, we use signage and fun facts to remind shoppers that for every purchase they make, the money goes directly back to caring and supporting pets.

Managing a social enterprise is daunting. It takes a special team to weather the challenges our organizations face, but those of us who have chosen this path would not swap our journey. At Michelson Found Animals, we are proud to have helped millions of animals since 2005. Every time an animal is adopted from our Adopt & Shop stores, a lost animal is found through our microchip program, or an animal welfare organization thrives through our grants, we are grateful for the work we do, even though being a social enterprise is challenging. Just watching the joy in the eyes of adoptive parents and the thrill of seeing a pet find a forever home reminds us that no matter the obstacles, doing well by doing good is the most rewarding experience of our lives.

Aimee Gilbreath joined Michelson Found Animals in March 2008 as its first full-time employee and Executive Director. She has been responsible for developing and implementing the Foundation’s wide range of innovative programs. Under her leadership the Foundation has grown to over 70 staff members and 500+ volunteers. Found Animals’ programs focus on sterilization, microchipping, and adoption as key levers to reduce shelter intake and euthanasia and span from traditional philanthropy to social enterprise. In addition to providing funding to local spay/neuter non-profits, the Foundation also administers the Michelson Prize and Grants program to encourage development of non-surgical sterilization products. Found Animals provides affordable microchips and scanners, along with a state-of-the-art universal registry, to shelters and clinics nationwide. In Los Angeles, the foundation operates two retail adoption centers that adopt 3,000 shelter pets per year as well as a kitten foster program. Gilbreath is a former management consultant with significant experience leading teams to solve business problems for Fortune 500 clients. She holds an M.B. and a B.S. in Molecular Biology. She’s currently the loving pet parent of her pitbull Rufus.