Solving problems through social enterprise

Using the five whys to break things down

If you start thinking about all the global issues out there, you’re likely to get pretty depressed. They’re so big that you sometimes feel unable to change anything, and even if you try to change things it’s on such a small scale that it’s hard to see the impact.

Instead, take a step back from that and look at your local issues — either in your country, city or street. Now things should be looking a bit more manageable and hopefully more rewarding when it comes to getting out what you put in.

Whichever problem you end up choosing to tackle, it’s how you break it down that makes sure you are able to change it and have a wider effect, or even, a ripple effect.

Activism in action

Recently in the British news we’ve heard a lot about Greta Thunberg, an activist who started by simply refusing to go to school every Friday. This was all in protest against how corporates and governments were not safeguarding her future due to their environmental policies. Fast forward six months, and over a million students worldwide have joined in with her protest.

Sure, she is the exception to the rule, but she broke things down and looked at how she could make in impact. Instead of writing letters to large companies or the EU, or her Prime Minister, or the local Mayor, she thought about where she could make a bigger impact — at her school and in her community. She turned a problem where so many people feel helpless into one where she feels empowered. Now she’s having those talks with decision-makers, and we’ll see whether she can have any impact at that level.

Tackling your own problems

Before thinking about potential social enterprise ideas, we need to think about a few problems happening locally, as many feed into global problems. I recently asked students at my former school to name a global, national and local problem.

Here is what they came up with:

  • plastic waste
  • Brexit social divide
  • growing knife crime

Three problems that international bodies, governments, and whole civil sectors are trying to solve on a daily basis. The only way we, as individuals, can really have an impact on these is to dig further. For this we can use the 5 why method, a technique originally used by Toyota to help with rooting out faults and errors in their production and manufacturing.

Problem: Growing knife crime
Why 1: More young people carrying knives
Why 2: To protect themselves
Why 3: Scared of being mugged
Why 4: Don’t be feel safe on the streets
Why 5: Lack of police presence

Creating solutions

Now the bigger problem has been broken down into five reasons, some of which are easier to try to resolve than others as us as individuals.

For example, in order to feel safer on the streets, there could be some self-defense and conflict management training. To reduce the number of those carrying knives, there could be knife amnesty days and awareness building around the dangers of carrying your own knife. To protest or counteract the lack of police presence, there could be petitions, research on hotspots, community action to create safe routes or walking groups.

There are many ways to answer the ‘whys’ for this question, and we can do this exercise a few times to come up with different reasons.

How about social enterprise

You could argue that most of the solutions above are things that should get government funding or be delivered by the civil sector, and therefore turning them into a business idea is a lot harder.

This said, with the three models of social enterprise, there are many ways in which the above solutions could be funded.

Self-defence or similar training could be run on a profit-basis, which could then fund free training for the target audience of this problem. Kapap Academy from Singapore do just this.

The knives handed in as part of the amnesty could be upcycled into other products or resold appropriately, and the profits could go towards further amnesties or awareness days. One charity doing something similar is Steel Warriors, turning these knives into outdoor gyms.


Think about the problems that you and your community facing. Break them down individually by asking five whys, and see what solutions you can put to those smaller causes. Once you have some ideas, you can start thinking about completing your business model canvas — could it make money from trading on the market? Then you’re onto something social enterprise. If not, then you still might have a good idea for a nonprofit or charity.

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