Stakeholder engagement and building networks

Stakeholders are all the people that your social enterprise has an impact on or connection to. This could include your funders, your clients, customers, beneficiaries and supporters. The range of different stakeholders is discussed elsewhere in this toolkit.

Your relationships with these stakeholders are of paramount importance in relation to funding and finance. You will, of course, need to develop relationships with potential funders and investors; but in the world of social finance you will also need to demonstrate a strong network and dialogue with your beneficiaries and other key stakeholders in order to build credibility with those funders / investors. This section discusses issues concerned with building your networks and developing stakeholder relationships.

Your beneficiaries are key – engage them

A social enterprise exists to trade and to make a positive impact on a defined community. It is important therefore that this community is aware of what you are doing. For some social enterprises, it may be important that the community is seen to have some active / formal input into what you are doing and how you are doing it. In order to ensure key stakeholders are represented, some social enterprises will invite representatives to become members of the Board or to attend Board meetings. Others may invite stakeholders to be members, or owners, of the company. This ensures that the stakeholders have an understanding and a say in the running of the social enterprise. Steps such as these will help demonstrate that your organisation really addresses the needs of your target community or beneficiaries and will be a valuable selling point as you look for funding.

Building a valuable network

For all enterprises, networks are important:

  • A supportive network will enable you to market your services and products more effectively.
  • There is a move to use networks as a way of funding social enterprises by getting small sums of money from large numbers of people.
  • Networks warn you of impending problems, changes in legislation etc.
  • Networks inform you of potential contracts or work opportunities
  • Networks can support your cause when funders or local authorities are thinking of no longer funding you or using your services.
  • Networks allow you to attract employees and skills that might otherwise be difficult to access.

Networks are particularly important for social enterprises, which are often poorly resourced and need whatever support they can get. Networking gives social entrepreneurs access to information on grant funding, new investment initiatives, access to resources, access to expertise, training, support, advice and political updates and insight. All these things should be viewed as opportunities for some form of investment into your organisation (both cash and non-cash based).

There are numerous networking events, seminars, exhibitions and workshops organised by social enterprise and business support organisations – many that are free to attend. These are excellent opportunities for you to build your networks and add to your knowledge / skill-set in the early stages of your project / organisation.
Similarly, there are numerous online networks that exist with some dedicated to social enterprise, for example:

  • (sign on to the social enterprise group)

The social networking model is growing in many aspects of our lives, and social enterprise is no exception. Build your online network and presence; participate in discussions; post updates about your activities.

Your communications

You need to be proactive in informing your stakeholders and your growing network about what it is you are doing and why it is important that you continue to do so. There are numerous reasons to do this and to be seen to be doing it:

  • If you claim to be working on behalf of a community and do not communicate with them there may be a suspicion that you do not deliver what you claim you do.
  • There may certain stakeholders that demand information from you – for instance funders, investors and those that you have contracts with.
  • There are others who, if kept informed, may be able to help you at some point down the road.

Those that expect information from you may dictate the regularity (e.g. funders who will expect an annual report on the 3 year project they are funding). In other cases the regularity of your communications is up to you and will require you to strike the right balance: too often and your message may be ignored; too rarely and your stakeholders will either forget about you or think that you are in trouble. Try and find a pattern that keeps people informed and “on side” without becoming a nuisance!

Remember that what you communicate will depend on the stakeholder and their needs / expectations. The information you provide lenders and funders may be too sensitive or meaningless to other stakeholders. Similarly the micro-details of what you are doing in the community may not be relevant to your funders. Ensure that the information you communicate is appropriate to the audience.

The admin side

The method of communication is also worth thinking through. Attending workshops, seminars and conferences requires that you speak and update people you meet – you may even distribute printed material. Make sure that you take business cards and brochures.

Most organisations now do regular electronic newsletters. This allows for considerable information to be transmitted to growing numbers of stakeholders in a relatively easy and cost effective way. Make sure that the communication has something to say and can be easily read. If you have nothing much to communicate do this every quarter rather than monthly. You can also segment the information to give different stakeholders different information.

Create and use your web site to keep news and events current. This allows people who have heard of you to find out more. Make sure that there is a facility for them to register for newsletters or to contact you if they want your services.

Join and use networking sites – see above. Web 2.0 is rapidly becoming a standard form of communications for many businesses and organisations; it may be worth considering creating a Facebook group and / or using Twitter to communicate your activities.

When you meet people collect their contact information. Ask them to put you in touch with others who could use your services or could be of use to you. Make sure you record the information on your contacts. Ensure that you create a database of these names and details. This could be as simple as creating an Excel spreadsheet or using email address books.

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