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Ensuring CSR schemes have real impact

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 May, 2014, 2:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 July, 2014, 3:05pm

The concept of social entrepreneurship is gaining ground in Hong Kong as individuals and concern groups see the viability of running businesses whose prime purpose is to improve lives and make a direct contribution to the betterment of the community.

Of course, many multinationals and big-name brands feel entitled to make very similar claims, pointing to the jobs they create, taxes paid, sizeable donations made, and their role as upstanding corporate citizens. All that can be readily acknowledged, but the fact remains that the job of a standard finance-driven commercial organisation, whatever its size or sector, is to turn a profit for shareholders. Anything extra can go to good causes. In the world of social enterprise, the good cause is front and centre, with the business planned and investment structured specifically to make it happen.  

“The basic point is that you start the venture because of a social purpose,” says Professor Alex Nicholls of Oxford University’s Said Business School, who was in Hong Kong recently at the invitation of the British Council to discuss aspects of social entrepreneurship with various local groups. “You don’t begin with a business opportunity, but with a social problem, and then design an organisation to address that problem more effectively than the status quo. The social entrepreneur says ‘I can do better’ or just starts by providing something which is not there, but should be.”

Professor Alex Nicholls of Oxford University’s Said Business School

Depending on the country and the community, the scope can be almost limitless. Among Nicholls’s favourite examples are the Fair Trade movement, which set out to ensure that farmers growing agricultural commodities like coffee receive reasonable compensation for their labour. It caught on successfully and end-users are now willing to pay a little more in the knowledge that the actual produces – not just the middleman or the retailer - will indeed benefit.

He also notes “dialogue in the dark”, originally a German idea, but now adopted in other parts of the world, including Hong Kong. It takes sighted people into an area of complete darkness to give them the experience of what it is like to be blind. At the same time, it provides jobs for blind or partially sighted people who act as guides and may have difficulty finding work elsewhere. 

In marked contrast, Apopo is a social enterprise scheme operating in Mozambique and Tanzania. It uses trained rats to sniff out land mines, which can then be marked and detonated by experts, thereby performing a vital service. In other parts of Africa, rats’ superior sense of smell is even being used to detect early-stage tuberculosis in humans, allowing pre-emptive isolation and treatment and thus making a significant difference to the well-being of local communities.

Nicholls emphasises that if there is a need, there is usually an answer, and it doesn’t have to come via governments, recognised charities, or contributions from generous philanthropists. They all have their own part to play, but there is always room for innovation and tackling root causes – preventing disease, getting children to read, creating jobs for the homeless – as an alternative to the top-down approach of building a hospital, endowing a library, or establishing food banks and shelters.      

“As with any kind of enterprise, you need individuals with the vision, passion, expertise, and time to make it happen,” he says. “But I believe all the components are in place to make social entrepreneurship a really lively sector in Hong Kong. It should never be seen as a substitute for other initiatives or to let government off the hook, but many issues are still to find their champion.”

On a practical level, anyone with a bright idea and the commitment to back it up should find ready support from organisations like UnLtd, which are designed to do just this. They can share examples of other ventures dealing with the same general area and “off the shelf” business models illustrating both good and bad aspects of previous efforts.

Through this process, the social entrepreneur can be creative, but is also obliged to plan carefully, think in a structured way, and analyse details, just like anyone working on a commercial start-up. In similar fashion, they should also put a prototype in place early on to learn more quickly and avoid the traps of a “grand project”.

“The most important thing is measurement and accountability and finding a process to do it,” Nicholls say. “It should be done seriously and consistently, using the principle of participation and engagement and based on the premise that the people you are helping help to determine it. Without that, everything else is flim-flam.”