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A Sustainable Social Enterprise Takes Business Savvy, and Heaps of Passion

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Many believe that every entrepreneur is motivated to enter the marketplace with the hope of creating a quick-win venture in today’s world of the much coveted (and often glorified) multimillion-dollar executive exit. The fact is, that’s not the whole story.

Indeed many entrepreneurs hope to bring their zeal, passion and innovation to a new venture, but with the goal of sustaining a meaningful footprint that will endure over a extended period of time. This is especially true when it comes to social enterprises, which by nature tackle continually evolving issues and whose success is measured by their impact.   

Here are four valuable lessons I've learned along the way for those building a sustainable social enterprise:

Related: Richard Branson on Social Entrepreneurship

1. Be passionate. Social enterprises come about through passion -- deep passion to make a difference. When it comes to the business of running a social enterprise, you need to believe in what you're doing with every bone in your body so that you can effectively champion your cause, often with limited resources. My passion to make Van Andel Institute a world-renowned research and educational institute was informed by personal experience: I was diagnosed with cancer at age 24.

For others, it comes from a deep desire to move the needle on a social issue. Still others are stirred by an overwhelming motivation to give back. Whatever the initial driver, a sense of passion is critical.

2. Move quickly, every single day. The landscape that your social enterprise resides in will evolve quickly. To succeed, anticipate change and be prepared to react swiftly.

Whether it is a new fundraising landscape or an ever-changing regulatory environment, know that the climate you start out in will likely look different in a matter of time. Monitor this and innovate as quickly as possible to carve out your niche.

Related: For Social Entrepreneurs, What Comes First: Business or Mission?

3. Think long term. Creating sustainable change takes time. Thus, in building a social venture, strike a balance between having an impact now and planning for the future. This is especially true in terms of allocating resources -- something that every nonprofit, social entrepreneur and research institute must weigh. 

Your brand and message should resonate now, but also have staying power on a business level. Resist the temptation to overinvest time, funds and resources in every opportunity just because this will garner immediate results. To grow while ensuring longevity, a social enterprise must allocate resources that foster effectiveness now while paving a pathway for the future. 

And most importantly, think about the legacy that your social enterprise will leave for future generations and work every day to be sure you're on track.

4. Invest in the best. One of the lessons I learned early on is that every job matters at a social enterprise. You can't win if you don’t have the best players on your team -- for every single position. Does “best” mean the most credentialed? Not necessarily. I’ve found best to mean different things for different roles, but all must share the passion that is so critical to help your enterprise flourish in every category and edge out the competition.

David Van Andel

Written By

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute, a biomedical research and science education facility in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has also held various positions at Amway and is an entrepreneur involved in several business interests in the natural and life science products industries.