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After an initial investigation and organizational assessment you’ve chosen to continue the journey of developing a social enterprise. How exciting and challenging!


So now it’s time to generate business ideas, evaluate them, and build support and enthusiasm for the business development process that will follow. If you were going on a trip, this planning part is similar to deciding on where you could possibly go to meet your adventuring objectives. Here’s a general path.


1. Generate ideas: Create a long list of enterprise ideas through a brainstorming process that involves clients, staff, board, and other stakeholders.


Brainstorming is a group process for generating alternative ideas or solutions on a specific topic. Good brainstorming focuses on the quantity and creativity of ideas; concentrating on the quality of ideas is much less important than fostering the sheer quantity. After ideas are generated, they may be grouped, evaluated, and prioritized for subsequent research or consideration. Here’s how you do it:


  • Bring together a group of stakeholders, including your board, staff, and potential customers.
  • Review the results of the preparation step and make sure everyone understands the subject of the brainstorming exercise.
  • Collect as many enterprise ideas as possible that are relevant to your desired social and financial outcomes. Some questions that may stimulate ideas include:
    • What is your organization already good at?
    • Who benefits, or could benefit, from the services you provide?
    • How does your organization create value today?
    • What is going on in the market?
    • What are competitors doing?
    • What are your current and potential customers’ biggest needs?


2. Screen the ideas: Edit your long list of enterprise ideas by comparing each idea to your mission and business evaluation criteria, determining how closely they fit the criteria.


As a result of the brainstorming process, you will probably have far more business ideas than you can realistically analyze in depth. It doesn’t make sense to do studies and write business plans for ideas that are in the end likely to be passed over. Generally speaking, you will, in this step, pare down the number of ideas to be more fully explored. Initially, in the meeting in which you brainstorm, you probably need to take a look at all the ideas and select perhaps five for further screening.


We suggest here one way to reduce the number of ideas by roughly assessing the market potential of the idea and its likelihood of success. For this purpose, it is useful to think of success in two dimensions:


  • The strength of the idea: Does this concept have market potential and a business model? Will it advance your mission either by generating lots of revenue or by strengthening your service delivery?
  • The fit with the organization: Can your organization implement this idea successfully in the current market?


3. Build commitment and support for the process: Going through an idea generation and screening process will be a major effort. Assumptions are going to be challenged. People’s pet ideas may be rejected. Your organization’s comfort zone may be pushed.


But it is essential that before jumping in, you take the time to develop your key internal and external stakeholders’ commitment and support to the process. This gives you an opportunity to address potential challenges before they become roadblocks, and builds the foundation for the next step – the feasibility study of your business idea – will it actually work?



The Canadian Guide to Social Enterprise has full chapters on each of the planning steps and accompanying worksheets. Enterprising Non-Profits, enp, published the 2nd Edition of the guide in August 2010. It is available free online at: www.enterprisingnonprofits.ca.


David LePage is the program manager of Enterprising Non-Profits, enp, a unique collaboration of funders who provide support for social enterprise development. He is also a member of the Social Enterprise Council of Canada, and the Policy Council for Canadian Community Economic Development (CCEDNet).


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