Social entrepreneurs don’t just need lots of investors and a jazzy business plan. They also need to invest in their workers.
However, as social enterprises learn to play by the rules of the business world, employee training seems uncannily absent from available models for growth and scale. Even enterprises that invest in their employees can experience high turnover and difficulties securing the right people for the job. This doesn’t mean social enterprises mistreat them. Rather, many employees temporarily choose the social sector to build experience they couldn’t get at a “normal” business. Harvard Business Journal contributor Jenny Davis-Peccoud claims:
For ambitious young professionals, the abilities they develop fairly quickly at a social enterprise are the sorts of listening, communications, problem-solving and relationship skills that take years to acquire by climbing the corporate ladder. That's what makes the jobs that social enterprises offer more of a lane change than a permanent detour.
How can a social enterprise both invest in and keep key talent? Here are five suggestions from leaders in the world of social enterprise:
1. Choose your founding team based on their existing talents. Jordanian tech startup Taktek learned this lesson when they closed after developers they had trained left for higher-paying jobs in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. To retain more talent in his next venture, founder Gaith Kawar now plans to include properly trained people from the start rather than training everyone on the job.
2. Hire local. The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village hired and trained local staff, even contracting with local Rwandan firms to design and build the project’s village. While more expensive and time-consuming, board of directors chair Anne Heyman says this has been critical to the long-term success of their program.
3. Invest in long-term training rather than one-off programs. In Heyman’s experience, long-term programs where the trainer transitions out gradually are always more successful, as they help “local staff to build their capabilities and responsibilities over time.”
4. Dedicate staff time to structured collaboration sessions. Connect US Fund president Nancy Soderberg writes:
[F]ew organizations provide adequate staff to collaborative efforts; they often fail to prepare and maintain staff sufficiently, to the organizations’ detriment and eventual demise.
Soderberg suggests including a “neutral convener”: someone who asks questions that help the group to be self-critical and name challenges as they arise. These sessions provide an opportunity for staff to reflect on and refocus the organization’s mission, strengthening the business in the long run.
5. Provide opportunities for “lane-changers” to contribute. As Davis-Peccoud argues in her HBR piece, private-sector professionals are shifting in and out of the nonprofit world more than ever before, and these people will eventually bring social enterprise values back to the business world with them. Social enterprises don’t only help their clients; they also help their workers. By prioritizing staff development in their business model, enterprises don’t just increase their chances of success; they can also increase their impact.