Don't Start a Social Enterprise -- Unless You Have To

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This social enterprise thing isn't all its cracked up to be. It sounds pretty good, if you believe the hype that you can save the world, make friends, make money, and party party party. But even the most successful amongst us is breaking all sorts of rules, the kind they might teach you on day one in an MBA program. Which means that all bets are off, and we're totally on our own out here.

I don't know if the party thing is actually part of the hype, but it does seem to be what a lot of outsiders think we're doing all day (or all weekend anyway). People with traditional jobs just see that we can go to the gym in the middle of the afternoon, or work from a coffee shop or our homes or some funky loftspace and wear whatever we want, while they have to stick to schedules and finite personal days that don't roll-over and business casual. And they're right, those things are pretty cool. I wouldn't make it without those things. But my mid-day swim? That's my health insurance. I don't get paid for sick days. If I coast for a week because I'm hosting Thanksgiving or got in a fight with my mom, if I'm hungover and spend the day on Facebook, I don't get a paycheck at the end of the week. And sometimes - even when I work the 70 or 80 hour week at my most productive clip, I still don't get a paycheck at the end of the week.

If I look at the benefits and the perks and the responsibilities, all I have is that gym break. It isn't that great, people. It takes a much broader view of our work to see what makes it worth it - to see why we break those MBA rules and bypass retirement plans. I have to know that better food in school lunchrooms, and self-sufficient cocoa farmers in Madagascar and coffee farmers in Uganda, and youth-led HIV prevention programs, all make the world a better place for me to live. And we don't get a raise if we succeed, a bonus for making urban air a bit cleaner with the green roofs we plant. Sure we get a standard of living increase, by seeing a few more folks commuting by bicycle.

So I don't recommend it, if you like weekends and vacations and stability and projected income. If you want a mid-day gym break and party party party, talk to your HR department and see if you can telecommute once a week. Because folks, this isn't easy. We have to seek out our rewards everyday. Some days we have to check to see how many hits our website gets or how many followers our Facebook page has, just to remind ourselves that someone out there cares about what we're doing. Or we need to wait until our annual trip to meet the farmers/fishermen/alpaca herders that we work with, to see first-hand the impact of our work. If our business grows, we will worry its growing too fast, if it doesn't we will worry about that, too. We take criticism badly, and suggestions sometimes even worse. No matter how noble our missions, we do not live in classy homes. We worry that we are charging too much, and we struggle to pay the rent.

Activist entrepreneurship takes a very strong kind of person, many days I wonder if it takes one stronger than me. It takes a visionary who is also a bookkeeper. It takes someone tenacious enough to face corporate competitors head on, and compassionate enough to always make decisions that benefit the community instead of their savings account, and some days someone wise enough to see when a compromise is achievable.

Why do we do it, when everything logical seems to point the other way? I don't think it's a choice for most of us. There's something inside, quite tangible some days, about the size of a softball, that pulls us into it. A part that knows that we would be far sadder for the 40 hours a week on something we don't feel passionate about, then we are about doing what we do without a 401k. A part that knows somehow, someway, we are the one capable of giving a voice and a chance to a disenfranchised community. The business plan can be learned, the networking and development will come or it won't, but without that extra bit lodged in our chests, I don't think we could do it. I'm quite sure we wouldn't want to. But if you have it, if you can feel it in there, you know you don't have any other choice. Get ready for a bumpy ride.