This is an honest account of the journey of Light of Hope and how we evolved from a charity to a social enterprise in 2 years. Non-profits, charities, and volunteer organizations all have one big question on their minds. “How can I make my organization sustainable?” I hope our journey will help social entrepreneurs answer that big question.
So, let’s begin.
Three years ago, 4 university friends won the $2500 prize the Dell Education Challenge. They were among 816 teams to pitch their ideas to Dell, Microsoft and other industry experts in Texas, USA. They won for their idea to create world’s most efficient solar powered classroom. These classrooms that only required 60 watts of energy to run could help 40,000 off-grid primary schools Bangladesh.
Many students would have been happy to walk away with some money to burn, a few nice pictures and media coverage. These four friends were different. They crowdfunded another $4500 and returned to Bangladesh after completing their higher education in different parts of the world — Germany, Netherlands and Australia. In May 2014, with $6000 they started working on their first solar powered school in Bangladesh. That’s how the Light of Hope journey began.
Three years of pain, hustle, evolution, innovation, and mistakes taught us how to evolve a non-profit into social enterprise. These are the six things we found a social entrepreneur should focus on:
This should be the number one priority for your organization. I’ve seen many initiatives that set out to solve one problem only to change course a few months later. If you start an initiative to give quality education to underprivileged children, stick to it. Don’t lose focus by adding things like health-support or psycho-social support to your plate. If you’re working with primary level children, don’t be so quick to expand to adolescent groups. So many volunteer organizations and social projects try to do too much. Strive to be the best at one thing; the best in the country. Light of Hope is the best at setting up school libraries. No one in Bangladesh can build a school library better than we can in terms of quality and cost-efficiency. Individuals, schools, organizations or companies, who want to create libraries come to us.
We maintain our focus on primary level education with different products and services that help schools, students, and teachers make learning more interesting, engaging and fun. There were times when we were low on funds but had offers to start health-related projects for underprivileged children. But even in those difficult times, we said ‘no’ to those opportunities. Only because we wanted to be the best ‘primary level education’ social enterprise.
Come up with just one good product or service first in one focus area.
Diversify within your ‘focus area’
When I say, ‘razor-sharp focus’, I don’t mean you can’t diversify. Light of Hope started with a solar powered classroom but added other products and services. Our products and services address almost every aspect of primary level education. These include content development, library support, science labs, solar-classrooms, teacher trainings, etc.
After our first solar powered classroom, we didn’t get enough financial support to start working on the second classroom. We tried to raise funds for a few months. We were asking for a lot of money but we were a new organization that was still earning the trust of donors and funders. It cost a lot to create a single classroom. So, we found a different lower cost way to achieve our goal by starting a library project. We collected old storybooks, bought used storybooks, and negotiated lower prices with publishers. We started libraries at a very low cost and could reach more schools. We maintained our focus to improve primary level education but did it with low cost libraries. Eventually we raised the funds to continue building the solar powered classrooms.
We learned that you can and should diversify your products and services within your focus area. So, if for example, your focus is to provide health support to slum-dwellers, you can do that in many ways. You can provide primary healthcare support, start a low-cost pathological test facility, or even provide mental health support. Finding alternate ways to achieve your goal will save you from losing focus. Yes, there are many related problems that need solutions. But that doesn’t mean you should start addressing those problems. Doing too much, means you will only do a mediocre job. Strive to be the best at one thing and you can generate revenue to survive.
Become the Expert
If you are a single founder, you are the brand of your organization. Even when you have many co-founders, if you’re the CEO, you are the face of your venture. Your knowledge and your expertise will influence how others see your venture.
I’m an electrical engineer running an education-based enterprise. I had no idea about the needs of the education sector when we started Light of Hope. I realized that I needed to level up my knowledge when I started meeting with people in the education sector; many who had 20 years of experience. If you are not speaking their ‘language’, you’re not taken seriously. Experts use jargon from their specific industry and expect others to understand it.
In the first two years, I taught myself everything about primary level education. “There are experts with 20 years of knowledge; I need to gain that in 2 years,” I told myself. I read a lot of articles and watched hours of YouTube videos. I learned everything I could about the latest education technology. I read about innovative projects and developments that were happening around the world. After 2 years, I couldn’t wait to sit with anyone working in the education sector and blow their minds. I wanted to bring radical, crazy innovative ideas to the table. I not only could prove I knew my stuff but that I showed them I had new ideas that they hadn’t considered before.
This is the only way to develop meaningful partnerships and long term engagements. I still read 4–5 hours every day. I read when I am struck in traffic. I watch videos on YouTube when its 2 AM at night and my wife is sleeping beside me.
If you’re working in health sector, try to know more than a doctor. If you are working to provide clean water to poor, know more than the water engineers. Read and know more than anyone in your area of focus.
Get rid of volunteers
If you want to change your charity-model into a social business or enterprise model, get rid of volunteers. While volunteering is great and it offers a lot of benefit to the volunteers, it doesn’t contribute to your evolution from a charity-model to social business model. With volunteers, you get a group of young people whose enthusiasm only lasts from few hours to few months and they lack the skill sets to make your organization great.
I’ve been there. Light of Hope had up to 50 volunteers at one time. We had vibrant Facebook groups, we had meetings twice a month and we got very little done. After few months when they became busy with study or personal lives, we created another group and did the same thing over and over. After a year, we realized we were spending a lot of money, valuable time and resources doing ‘not-so-valuable work’. Although we are humbled and benefited by their time and service, these types of volunteer engagements were not good enough to make us ‘experts’ in any particular sector.
So, we got rid of most of the volunteers. We kept only a few of the most motivated ones and offered them full-time or part-time jobs. We also hired some experienced people and started building our products and services.
You may think that you don’t have enough money to hire full time experts. But go back to your financials and monthly expenditures again. Think long and hard. Can you get rid of 10–15 volunteers and hire one expert? If you can, please do it. It will pay you well into the future.
Starting a social enterprise is like starting a start-up. You don’t start a bike sharing start-up with 30–40 volunteers. You do it with 2–3 people who can code and make you a great app.
Create products and services for people who can afford to pay
If you are providing low-cost or free medical services to poor, that doesn’t mean you can’t serve the wealthy. If you are providing quality education to poor kids, why can’t you provide the same to kids of wealthy families?
The wrong approach to creating products or services could be the problem. Often, when you design products or services for the poor, you reduce the quality and that makes it unappealing to those who can afford to pay. If you design high-quality education products and services, you can sell them to parents and teachers who can afford to pay. You can then use profits to provide the same products or services to the poor at no cost. We create learning content that we sell to parents and teachers all over the world. We use profit from that revenue to provide this content to the underprivileged for free.
With Kids Time, Light of Hope offers creative workshops, courses and classes to children. Parents love this. Children come to our sessions and learn to make crafts from used materials, they learn storytelling and how to make a book of their story, they make puppets and then act in group plays. Through our various subsidy-based models we can make Kids Time and all our products and services available to both privileged and underprivileged children.
When we design a product or service, we ask ourselves whether anyone will pay for it. By asking this question, we make sure not to compromise the quality of the product or service. We use innovative methods to keep our costs low so that everyone can afford it.
If you are providing support, training and other services to adolescent girls in slums for free, can you do the same for adolescent girls of privileged families? Can you create a compelling offering that their schools would be willing to pay for? I bet girls in those schools would be willing to pay monthly subscription fee to be a member of that club. You need to create enough value in that service so that they will be willing to pay for it. And with profits from that revenue, you can give free/low-cost services to the adolescent girls from slums.
Make meaningful partnership
I still remember the early days of Light of Hope when we were excited about any partnership we formed. Agreements, MOUs, partnership meetings with well-known organizations all meant so much to us. We proudly mentioned partners in our next meeting with new partners. After a year of this partnership-spree, we had little to show for it — a few signed MoU, unfruitful meetings, and false hope that didn’t amount to much.
There were two reasons why those partnerships didn’t work out. First, we were not selective. We partnered with many organizations and companies that were not aligned with our mission, work and focus area. We learned the hard way that the right partner wasn’t necessarily a partner that was in the education sector. We started to see that were other organizations or companies who could offer more value.
Second, and probably more important, was that we couldn’t offer any value to them. We were just another volunteer organization who wanted to provide quality education to underprivileged children. Well, thousands of organizations in Bangladesh do that. Why are we special? How are we different than the many other similar organizations that need support? What is our unique value proposition? At that time, we didn’t have one.
Now, when we sit with potential partners, we know our strengths and we know exactly in what areas we are better than anybody else in this country. We also clearly understand our priorities and who the right partners are. We don’t waste time. If they need our services, good. If not, there is no need for more meetings.
All NGOs and non-profits who are working in education are going through a major crisis. Funds are shrinking and donors are asking for innovative education projects that will be sustainable. That’s our area of expertise. We create innovative education products and services and design sustainable projects. Now that we have a real value proposition, partners are reaching out to us.
To summarize what Light of Hope learned in the past three years, if you want to transform your nonprofit organization into a social enterprise, do the following:
- Focus on a single theme. Start with one or two great products in a single focus area and be best in class.
- Diversify your product or service set if needed, but keep the focus on one theme. Good examples of such is Poripaati — offering employment to underprivileged women to various household services like cleaning, maid service etc. The Tech Academy — offering interactive learning-by-doing course on science and technology to children.
- Become an expert. Read a lot and strive to be more knowledgeable that anyone else in your industry. You are the walking brand of your organization. Don’t let your lack of expertise ruin your organization’s reputation.
- Hire Talent. Volunteers can’t create a high-quality products or services. Get more full-time professional and get rid of volunteers.
- Create high-quality products and services people are willing to pay for. Sell to people who can afford to pay and use the profit to provide free or low-cost service/product to underprivileged groups.
- Choose your partner organizations wisely. Offer them ‘real value’. So that they will be willing to pay for your product and service.
Good luck with your endeavors. If you have any specific questions and want to explore ideas that can make your social initiative self-sustainable, you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article is written by Waliullah Bhuiyan, Founder & CEO, Light of Hope.