Social Enterprise

Hiring Talent for the Social Enterprise Means Going Young

A look at the prospects and perils of building the right team.

The toughest hurdle to scale your social enterprise probably will not be finding investment funds. Execute on a sound business model, and the right investors will be persuaded. Landing the talent you will need to scale successfully, on the other hand, will be much more difficult and complicated.

"Recruiting talent to a social enterprise"—it sounds straightforward, but that phrase fools us into thinking that we know the business category, and the kind of experience and skills needed. In practice, "social enterprises" are distinct hybrids that blend a for-profit operation and a nonprofit mission. Only a small group of individuals have navigated those tricky waters. Therefore, early-stage executive teams will have to judge how readily candidates will be able to make skill transitions and pivot to meet unforeseen challenges.

The majority of candidates that social entrepreneurs will evaluate to staff their fledgling businesses will fall into one of three camps: 1) the nonprofit veteran who is inspired to move out of the charity world but still pursue a higher mission; 2) the conventional corporate veteran who is mid-career and disappointed with the paucity of meaning in the daily grind of business activity; or 3) recent university graduates enamored with the possibility of generating sustainable businesses to address serious social problems.

Nonprofit veterans typically will have the most difficult transition. That is not necessarily due to their lack of expertise in financial operations; nonprofits are quite familiar with the demand to operate with one eye toward the budget. Driving transactions and generating new sales channels is probably less-familiar territory. The nonprofit operating manual relies on communicating a story of need to a fragmented client base and fishing the pond for the right fish who will take the bait. "Awareness of the cause" is perceived as a virtuous achievement—broadcast it, and they will come. Sure, brand is important to the emerging social enterprise, but nothing speaks success like purchase orders. Frankly, it is difficult to move nonprofit veterans beyond their love for the anecdote, a product mention from main stage at an industry convention, or a gushing email from a satisfied customer.

The conventional corporate veteran provides a wholly different challenge. Social enterprises set a steep course up the mountain to success. They likely are defining a new market niche, while having the audacity to believe that they can be financially profitable and demonstrate effective social impact. Underestimate the uniqueness of these conditions to your peril. The business model, market alliances, and positioning of the product or service likely will shift—perhaps even quarterly. The corporate veteran is not accustomed to such fluidity. It feels more like chaos than an adventure. That sense of displacement is magnified by the enterprise's commitment to a double bottom line. The corporate veteran admires the social mission and honors its economic success, but usually struggles to traverse the mental wall that separates the two.

Truthfully, just about every social enterprise will turn to a younger staff to some degree. The budget line available for salaries will lead a start up in this direction, but equally significant is the fact that recent university graduates possess the technical and media skills that a social enterprise needs. The most important reason of all, however, is that it is much easier to hardwire strategy and skills into an open, inquiring mind than it is to teach an old dog new tricks. Nowhere in business is this lesson more true than in the world of social enterprise. Learning to "speak" hybrid and "act" hybrid comes with immersion. Think of it as the children of first-generation immigrants. They do not identify themselves as coming from an old world or a new world, but the world of their own making.

Common sense might suggest that a mixture of a pioneer-oriented, younger staff along with a more grizzled, experienced staff would provide the ideal solution for the social enterprise. Finding the right veteran who can fit in is vital—undervalue wisdom and gravitas at your own risk—but it is really tough to do. Decision making in the social enterprise culture tends toward a meritocracy of ideas and practicality—"what works now." I have had more than one experienced executive confess to me that they could not respect the opinion of a mid-twenties director in our agency. Higher degrees, lengthy resumes, and impressive titles matter little in a pioneer culture. A special veteran loves the dynamism of learning anew every day, while most ego-bruised veterans self-select and leave.

The best advice I have for founders of a social enterprise start up: Establish a learning culture. Attract individuals who value their own talent growth and get excited about new insights. At my agency, we ask ourselves, "Are we smarter this month than we were a month ago?" If that answer is a "not really" for a string of months, red flags are waving.

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  • Patricia's avatar

    BY Patricia

    ON November 1, 2012 01:27 PM

    When steering the uncertain waters of a “hybrid” model - judgement prevails not age.

    Search for talent first, then narrow choices by evidence/proof of commitment to lead change regardless of how many twists and turns, pivots, etc.

    The goal is to hire professionals who have first-hand experience to navigate “daily” challenge or change but who nonetheless stay the course until s/he achieves the social impact—sustainably.

    In short, young or old, people will not follow leaders who easily get lost.

  • Decrepitus Maximus's avatar

    BY Decrepitus Maximus

    ON November 2, 2012 03:25 AM

    No disrespect intended, but this note is preposterous.  Social enterprises are not some form of new, radically different, entity.  Long before the term was being widely used, people in nonprofits were behaving as social entrepreneurs and they still are.  The notion that experienced nonprofit people spend their time sitting around exchanging war stories is hugely entertaining.  However David may wish to consider that his experience may be more about the types of candidate that his organisations attracts, as opposed to a general trend.  He might also just be setting himself up for discrimination litigation next time he recruits.

  • BY H. Okoronkwo

    ON November 2, 2012 08:04 AM

    I really enjoyed your article.  As a for-profit technology professional making the transition to the social enterprise space in Africa, it rings true for me.  At my most recent position at a mobile payments company in Zambia, at 35, I was one of the older people on the team.

  • BY Jake Blehm

    ON November 2, 2012 08:58 AM

    While I appreciate Dr. Batstone’s comments about the challenge of either career business or non-profit people contending with the hybrid model, I would make the case that there are and have been veterans from the business world that have been prepared to work in this space for many years.  Many of us have now worked in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, and believe that the social enterprise model may be our last best hope in creating significant positive change in the world.  For without a balance of concern for humanity, environment and economic development, we will most certainly fail to meet the critical challenges of the coming decades.  I would point to people such as Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Mohammed Yunus of Grameen who understood this model years before others described what a social enterprise is.  Hopefully with several states now offering a “benefit corporation” or equivalent option, the number of enterprises choosing to expand the scope their mission and vision will continue to grow.

  • BY SocentGirl

    ON November 5, 2012 09:01 AM

    Cards on the table, I’m in my 40’s, but am also a student in the Fellowship Program at the new School for Social Entrepreneurs in Ontario. Like other folks who’ve commented, I’ve worked in both the for profit and non-profit spaces and really like “fluid” organizations. In fact, I think “fluidity” is going to be the norm for most organizations going forward. For a great book on how to best manage in these organizations I recommend Bill Daniel’s book Change-ABLE Organization. I’ve used his approach in both for profit and non profits (and with groups in between) and, while it takes effort to get everyone committed to this way of working, it is worth it.

    As for the age thing, I’m with Patricia and most of the others who’ve left comments here. Hiring well isn’t about age , it’s about being clear about a) what outcomes you’re driving for, which determines who you’ll need to help and also b) what kind of a corporate culture you’re trying to build in your organization. In the beginning, I’d go lean and mean with hiring, i.e. start with a small team of really talented and committed folks. Then once they’ve gelled, engage the core team in identifying who’s next to bring on board. Think skills, behaviors and fit factors here. When in doubt, select behaviors and fit factors over technical expertise every time. You don’t generally fire folks for lack of technical skills, but you do for the other two. Interesting discussion, perhaps some younger folks will weigh in now?

  • BY David B Batstone

    ON November 5, 2012 12:33 PM

    I truly appreciate the thoughtful comments that SSIR readers bring to this thread. It’s refreshing to participate in an exchange of ideas on a blog instead of flame-throwing.  I suppose I would like to draw a distinction between a declarative perspective (this is the way it has to be) and an experiential one (this is what I have learned by doing it).  In my essay I am sharing what I have learned in the building of multiple social enterprises over the past decade. Certainly wizened veterans like Yvon Chouinard capably launch new enterprises (heck, I’m in my mid-50s). Their challenge (and mine) is scaling the enterprise as it grows beyond the start-up team.  In my experience, younger candidates - talented yet “green” in development - will prove to be your likely hires.  If someone has scaled a social enterprise and discovered otherwise, I would love to hear of your experience.  I am not arguing that older veterans from the corporate or NPO world lack talents or capacity, but *in practice* I doubt that a social enterprise will turn to them as their primary staff *as they scale*.  Eager to hear from the experience of others in this space.

  • Leo Carpenter's avatar

    BY Leo Carpenter

    ON November 5, 2012 01:10 PM

    I read your article David, and would pretty much agree with it to the letter.  I’d like to think (as a slightly older than you guy) that my Yoda-like skills would be marketable in the world of NPO’s, start up social enterprises, etc., but the sad fact is that alongside 20 years of experience can sometimes come 20 years of reasons why something won’t work.  Entry-level experienced & slight college experienced young people are going to get the nod because with that wide-eyed innocence comes the naivete’ that something will work and they just get it done!  I just recently spent 3 days with such young people, whose Pollyanish demeanor & mad skills made me look like Don Quixote at a windmill party.  This isn’t to say I think we’re out to pasture….we just may not be aware they don’t handmilk anymore.

  • BY Jonathan Lewis

    ON November 7, 2012 09:37 PM

    For practical commentary on this topic, watch “Scared Shitless on the Job” with the Bamboo Finance CEO on

  • Trump was on a talkshow and said about her host’s elevation and explained she was happily surprised he was not as short

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