Building a Social Enterprise Strategy? Start By Asking Beneficiaries What They Want

May 11, 2016

Is your organization struggling to meet your customers’ needs? In her last post, Liana Downey provided strategies to help organizations identify who their customers are and who their client beneficiaries are. Here, she provides one straightforward step to help social leaders identify the unmet needs of BOTH their customers and client beneficiaries.

Ask Clients What They Want and Need

Most business owners are familiar with the idea of focus groups and market testing to ensure their products target unmet needs, but these techniques can and should also be employed to understand the needs of potential beneficiaries. Occasionally, social enterprises get this wrong—doing rigorous design testing on the product, but less on the social piece, or vice versa. Ultimately, the best way to get this information and identify the unmet needs of BOTH your customers and client beneficiaries is to directly ask your clients what they want and need.

Leaders sometimes fail to do this out of arrogance, assuming that clients do not know what they need. More often, leaders are afraid that asking the question will create expectations that cannot be met, or that clients will want the “wrong things.” However, research suggests clients are actually really good at knowing what they need.

Manage Expectations

It is important to manage expectations and be clear about what you can and cannot do. But give your client beneficiaries the benefit of the doubt; ask them directly what they want and find ways to communicate directly with them. If your client beneficiaries are very young, infirm, or coping with conditions that limit their ability to communicate —then talk to your clients’ caregivers.

If you or your nonprofit partner already conduct client surveys, that’s a great start. If not, there are many other ways to ask questions. For example, you could: call a sample of client beneficiaries and ask for their input; invite a group to come in for a snack and chat, and run a focus group; distribute surveys through the mail or online (using sites such as; or visit areas where your client beneficiaries live or work with a clipboard or iPad and interview people directly. It is crucial to the success of your mission to make sure your partners are working effectively to meet the unmet needs of their clients, too. Your reputation is on the line, so you cannot leave this to chance.

Two Successful Case Studies

The phenomenal growth of Eat My Lunch (a buy-one-give-one model) has a lot to do with the fact that the founders, Lisa King and Michael Meredith, spend time and energy designing lunches that are just as appealing to the school kids who receive them for free as they are to the corporate customers who pay.

Similarly, Honey and Sage offers a monthly subscription of wellness products. Their target clients are women who need some TLC. Founder Nova Rhodes Cox is passionate about helping women whose daily lives involve caring for others, such as a child, parent, patient, or student, noting “these women typically neglect their own health, with real consequences.” She not only lived this life herself, but makes sure to understand the specific needs of the customers she is serving. For example, people caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s patients, on average, take two times longer than others to recover from serious illness. Cox put just as much work into identifying a nonprofit partner with whom to work. She wanted there to be commonality among her customers and client beneficiaries, so while they differ from her customers in terms of their location and personal circumstances, they are also women who need some love and care. Early in Honey and Sage’s development, Cox says she courted Circle of Health International as an ideal nonprofit partner, given their complementary mission: to support women and children in situations of crisis (like refugees). Today, a portion of all sales are donated to Circle of Health International.

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Understanding the needs of your customers and client beneficiaries is essential in growing your business. Develop strategies that work with your social enterprise through AMA's resources and seminars.

About The Author

Liana Downey, Stanford MBA, is a global strategic advisor, speaker and author of Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More and Change the World (Bibliomotion, May 2016). Liana is a former leader of McKinsey’s social sector practice, and lectures at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. You can connect with her @ldandassociates.

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