Accepted stats claim that there are roughly 180,000 registered charities and about 60,000 social enterprises across the UK. Odds are that as you read this blog post, some enterprising and socially minded individual is busy registering a new charity or social enterprise. While many of these budding social entrepreneurs will boldly go where many others have gone before, due to a mix of access and time, these two groups, the novice and the experienced, don't always have the opportunity to meet and trade war stories.
That's where this blog comes in. Over the next few months, I'll talk to charity and social enterprise leaders about their experiences, lessons, and failures so that they can provide nuggets of insight that may help and, dare I say, inspire the next generation.
And I've got quite the leader for my inaugural interview. There are few social entrepreneurs as inspiring (or successful) as Andrea Coleman, CEO and Co-Founder of Riders of Health: a social enterprise that manages and maintains health vehicles to transform health care for almost 14 million people in seven countries in Africa.
Don't take my word for it. Simply look at the accolades that have been bestowed on Riders since Andrea, along with her husband Barry Coleman and professional motorcycle racer, Randy Mamola, started the organisation 25 years ago. These include a Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship, a Third Sector Excellence Award, and this year, Riders was named one of the Top 100 NGOs in the World by The Global Journey.
Carlos: What is the one thing you wished someone would have told you when you, Barry and Randy were starting out?
Andrea: The one thing they did tell us was that this would never work. But I am glad that they did, because for social entrepreneurs this is the thing that spurs you on the most. The important thing is to trust that conviction if you know you are right.
But I wish someone would have told us is just how long it takes to convert people into prioritizing transport. For something that is so fundamental, and really so obvious, it always amazes me just how long it takes.
How do you think the environment for new social entrepreneurs has changed since you started?
When we began Riders we did not know that such a thing as social enterprise existed. But the development of the social enterprise sector has legitimised these types of activities and given confidence. There is also more investment into the sector, although not enough.
What resources do you wish you would have had access to that exist today?
Support, legitimacy, guidance, and specific investment. Also, other models to explore. Social entrepreneurs tend not to listen to anyone except other social entrepreneurs. That is why organisations like the Skoll Foundation are so important, as they have developed the community.
Rightly, effective charities and social enterprises focus on sustainability. Can you explain how Riders is ensuring the sustainability of its programmes?
All of our programmes are designed for the partners to pay for our services at a not-for-profit rate based on the number of kilometers each vehicle travels. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, it is a cost recovery model that means our programmes are sustainable. But, secondly, it actually helps the partner. They can set a budget for transport and know exactly how much it will be. They know they will never have to pay high and unnecessary repair costs and, because their transport will not break down, they can plan their work with confidence.
This concept of earning money is something that has been with us since the start. We knew raising money for transport was not going to be easy, so we always set out to earn as much of our money as possible, even in our fundraising. I think that having that approach to earning income at the very start has been very important to Riders.
How do you balance preparation and instinct in making tough choices?
Social entrepreneurs are opportunistic. Instinct is often the most reliable guide but investors and donors like to see the plans and the risks - understandably. As a social enterprise matures and scales, planning becomes essential but listening to instinct is often what differentiates social entrepreneurs from other people.
Along your journey, what has been your most valuable failure?
In 1997 we had to end our first programme in Lesotho, which we launched in 1991. We were so successful that the 45 motorcycles that we were running never broke down. Until that time, the Ministry of Health had only ever experienced failed transport. When transport is working, the thing that keeps it running is almost invisible, so the ministry misunderstood the reason for their success. Because the vehicles kept running they thought the problem of broken vehicles was solved and they thought they no longer needed us. We learned that it is important to constantly highlight our intervention and reason for it. It took us a long time to get back into Lesotho.
You have over 20 years experience running Riders for Health, what are three things that you have learned that you would pass on to budding new social entrepreneurs?
Firstly, anyone starting a social enterprise has to realize how much of your life this will take up. We made the decision to do something about transport for health care over twenty five years ago, and it has dominated our lives ever since. But if you truly believe you are making a fundamental difference then this is something that should spur you on.
The second is to find people who are better at things than you, and hire them. Creating a strong team of really great and passionate people is what will help your social enterprise succeed.
The third is that you should get to know other social entrepreneurs. They are knowledgeable, collaborative and supportive. They have been invaluable to us.
Oh, and of course, remember to try and have fun. Because it is really, really hard.
You can learn more about Andrea and Riders for Health here.