Social Enterprise Alliance Conference 2017: Our Takeaways

[We are continuing our series on the highlights and key takeaways from social impact and innovation conferences around the world. You can view our calendar of upcoming conferences, and let us know of others you’d like to share!]

I was pleased to attend my first national conference of the Social Enterprise Alliance (@SocEnt Alliance) in Los Angeles last month. I was fortunate enough to meet David Coy (reachable here), Senior Marketing & Communications Associate at a leading organization that invests in the growth and effectiveness of social enterprises: REDF. David graciously agreed to share some of his thoughts from the conference, as he has attended three of these gatherings.

With several hundred participants, the conference showcased a wide variety of social enterprises that broke into two broad categories: 1) nonprofits running a social impact business to help fund their operations and carry out their missions, and/or 2) for-profit businesses with a bottom line that includes a social/environmental purpose.

The biggest takeaway for me? The sector is realizing that their marketing actually has to spotlight quality on BOTH sides of the equation: both the story of their social impact AND the effectiveness and efficiency of their entrepreneurial venture’s product.

For us communicators, this is important. In the past, we may have wanted to focus our reader’s attention on the social good that emerges from social enterprise work (empowering communities, offering meaningful work to hard-to-employ folks, producing recycled or recyclable products, etc.). But just as important is communicating the high quality, desirability, and benefits to the consumer that each product or service provides.

David got the same impression: “You need to lead your brand with a quality product or service. Too many social enterprises lead with the social impact or who the business empowers.” Instead, we learned, “Put forth a quality product and use its social benefit as the ‘add-on’ to trigger a purchase as part of marketing.”

That gets to the heart of one of the key rules in marketing: “Know thy customers and keep listening to what matters to them.”

Or, as I say, in the nonprofit/social enterprise space we have to remember that our constituents are asking a double question: “What’s In It For Me AND US?”

I also liked the idea of moving beyond just storytelling to resonate with the audience, and into storyLISTENING. That is, thinking about which stories matter and which ones are not being told or heard. We conference participants were encouraged to listen to stories from different points of view and how the language used in stories (no matter who tells them) needs to represent the people in them with respect, integrity, and human values.

David put it this way: “We need more collaborative and mindful messaging when telling our stories.  We need to make sure the teller’s voice is heard and respected, and stop defining people by the barriers they face.”

Another session I attended focused on philanthropic investors: the other key component of our audience. We know that they are looking to fund organizations with solid business practices and ongoing innovation that lead to revenue generation and positive employee relations. In other words, it’s not enough anymore to be doing great work in the world; your internal process has got to be up to snuff and yielding a high Return on Investment for all stakeholders. That needs to be featured in your story.

Fortunately, David was able to attend a final session of the conference that I could not. It was entitled “Building Your Leadership Story,” and the speaker was Michael Kass of the Center for Story and Spirit. Kass also has a free ebook by the same name.

David said that this session reinforced his other big takeaway from the conference: the need to invest in quality storytelling.  He said, “I see so many nonprofits and social enterprises that believe that facts and statistics will somehow inspire or change a mind. But we [also] actually need to tell stories that share common values to connect: a journey that inspires. Only then can we call our supporters to action.”


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