Resources for social entrepreneurs - stack of books

Starting a social enterprise: the best free guides and resources


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Starting a social enterprise can be a daunting, confusing and sometimes lonely experience. You may know what you want to achieve but understanding how you get there can feel quite overwhelming. Like starting any business, you need to wear the hats of an accountant, business strategist, marketer, researcher and any other field of expertise related to your business.

After several months of research and consideration, I managed to set up my social enterprise Good Things. In my opinion, getting to that point takes perseverance rather than expertise, but you do need to make decisions carefully and seek expert advice where you can. 

One of the things I was most surprised by was how hard to find - and confusing - the information for aspiring social entrepreneurs can be. I collected useful guides and resources as I went along and I'm going to share the most helpful ones with you here:

The basics:

What exactly is a social enterprise?

There are lots of definitions and no hard and fast rules for what social enterprises are. This article from Social Enterprise UK helps explain what a social enterprise is all about.

Is a social enterprise right for you?

UnLtd has loads of useful information, it's definitely worth taking some time to browse the guides in their learning area. It sounds great, but asking whether a social enterprise is actually the right business model for you is a good place to start.

Inspiration and developing your idea

Also from our friends at UnLtd, this downloadable booklet: Changing the World: a young person's guide to social entrepreneurship. Although it's aimed at a younger audience, I really liked its visual and informal style. If you're at the early stages of developing an idea I think the space for reflection and developing your idea are helpful (you choose whether you complete all the activities!). 

Starting a social enterprise

The School for Social Entrepreneurs has a brilliant newsletter, a website with lots of helpful guides and nationwide courses - I've been on a couple and they're highly recommended. Their 10 steps for starting a social enterprise offers a framework to work through and additional sources of information which are well worth looking at.
You might also want to download this comprehensive guide from Social Enterprise UK which focuses on each step of starting a social enterprise and the questions you need to consider.
Developing an idea: lightbulb and bubbles

Figuring out the right legal structure for you

Here's where things can get confusing. Lots of people (somewhat understandably considering the lack of information out there) assume you'll set up as a Community Interest Company if you're a social enterprise. While this may well be the right option for you, it's important to explore the other legal structures available too, before you set up. 

The structure you choose will have implications for funding and the fundamentals of how your enterprise will work. With some structures you can't convert to another legal structure if your activities change, while others offer more flexibility. I spent a long time trying to work out which option was right for me and I've spoken to other pre-start-up social entrepreneurs struggling with the same challenge. My advice is to get as much information as possible but be careful, there is confusion out there! Make sure you're completely confident before making your decision. Often a well-informed accountant is best-placed to advise you on this.

This article from UnLtd explains all the legal structures available, plus the pros and cons of each. I wish I'd found this when I was trying to figure this out!

Writing your business plan

Good to know: you probably need a structure which works for a social enterprise. In the end I found I needed to write this from the top, making it work for my own organisation. Following templates just made things more complicated. Keep it simple and keep it relevant. 

The School for Social Entrepreneurs provide some helpful guidance and encouragement. 

Draft business plans - paper in the bin

Business Model Canvas

If you're still developing your idea or not ready to write a full business plan, consider a Business Model Canvas. This is a really helpful tool either as a starting point to help you keep your full business plan on topic, or if you can, use it in place of a detailed business plan. It's essentially a big sheet of paper with nine boxes which provide an overview of your enterprise. You can find out about what a Business Model Canvas is in this article from Development Impact and You. Make sure you understand what you're putting in each of the boxes to make it effective.

Speak to the experts

I hope this helps you think through your idea and develop it a bit further. My additional piece of advice would be to get out there and talk about it with experts. I know it can feel tempting to be very protective of your brilliant new concept, but you do need to know it's financially and legally viable. Lots of law firms offer monthly or weekly free drop-ins and many accountants will provide a free first session. Both will be confidential. It's crucial that you run your idea past others before making a huge time - or financial - commitment.

Looking at funding your idea? If you're a female entrepreneur in the UK you might like to check out my Top Tips for Crowdfunding with NatWest's Back Her Business.

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