Careers Guide: DIY third sector

Instead of joining the voluntary sector by getting a job, a number of people are doing it by founding their own social enterprises. Alex Blyth meets the start-ups

In 2000, Colin Crooks was a man with a van – and a plan. He believed he could reduce the waste involved in large companies throwing out furniture by using it to help people in developing countries. So he got in touch with some companies and offered to take their furniture away, sparing them the cost and trouble of disposal.

They readily agreed. He cleaned and repaired the furniture and sold it to charities at reduced prices. He then used some of his profits to fund training for disadvantaged people in the UK and deliver much-needed furniture to schools in Sierra Leone, a medical centre in the Sudan, a hospice in St Kitts and other beneficiaries.

His organisation, Green-Works, is just one of the many social enterprises that have sprung up in the past decade. There is some dispute about the exact definition of a social enterprise, but most would agree with this simple description from Nick Temple, policy and communications director at the School for Social Entrepreneurs: "A social enterprise is a business that trades for a social purpose."

Is it for you?

Crooks describes forming a social enterprise as "incredibly exciting", and Green-Works has been a great success – its four franchises now have a turn-over of £2m a year. It’s not been easy, though. "There have been lots of hairy moments," he says. "Anyone setting up a social enterprise can expect many unpredictable challenges."

So why would someone wanting to contribute to society set up a social enterprise rather than join a traditional charity? Cliff Prior, chief executive of UnLtd, a body that provides funding and practical assistance to social enterprises, says: "Almost certainly, going to work for a charity will be better for your CV. Setting up a social enterprise is rarely a rational decision. People who do it tend to be gripped by an intense desire born of personal experience."

If you decide the DIY route is for you, then these five steps will help you start off in the right direction:

1 Make sure the numbers add up

Tom Minter, founder of Socks for Happy People, which donates a pair of its socks to Mongolian street children every time someone buys a pair, says: "First and foremost, make sure the numbers work on a business level. A social enterprise is not a charity. The business model must have the ability to stand on its own merits. Many social entrepreneurs focus on the social side too much, to the extent that they neglect the business. Your business must be profitable – if it’s not, you won’t be in business for long."

2 Write a business plan

Chris Rayner, an adviser at Business Link in London, says: "Write a business plan. Compile a cash-flow forecast. Work out what it will cost you and try to imagine what could go wrong as well as what could go well – develop strategies for mitigating the former and exploiting the latter."

3 Network

Networking is sometimes over-rated in business, but in social
enterprise it is vital. Chris Milner, founder of the Hextol Foundation, which
provides employment training to people with learning disabilities, says: "Find others who work with the group you want to help. Talk, understand the issues, win allies. Find the best possible people to be on your board –?the more experienced and able they are, the more chance you have of making good decisions."

4 Find seed funding

Ben Matthews, founder of Bright One, which provides low-cost, volunteer PR services to charities, says: "Identifying and securing the most appropriate sources of finance are two of the earliest and most challenging steps facing any social enterprise. If you can find an initial seed fund, while also proving how you will make your social enterprise sustainable through generating your own income, then you’re on the right track."

5 Ditch the fear

It can be daunting, but if you truly believe in the good you will do, if you are certain the sums add up and if you have the people and the funding in place, then don’t hold back – screw up your courage and get started. As Colin Crooks concludes: "The social enterprise movement is still very new, so there is a lot of room for new ideas and energy. With an open field and a desperate need for innovation and passion, I believe that anyone starting up now has a great opportunity to shape the future."

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