A Leader in Social Enterprise
To say Don’s career has been a success is an understatement. Over the course of 35 years, one of his many successes is establishing and managing four social enterprises in four different industries that employ over 70 vulnerable individuals annually.
Don is responsible for operating Kracker’s Katering, the longest running employment-based social enterprise in Ottawa, now 20 years old. His last year on the job has seen his social enterprises poised to earn $1M in revenues.
Don Palmer is living proof that social enterprises can be wildly successful.
We sat down with Don during his last days on the job to get the inside scoop on building and managing a social enterprise that works.
Building a Successful Social Enterprise from the Ground Up
“Building a social enterprise is a constant learning process. In doing so, be prepared to take two steps forward and one step back. Unlike a conventional business model, a social enterprise forces you to weather the normal ups and downs of the marketplace, plus a whole set of challenges not normally confronting the private sector.” says Don.
In terms of funding challenges, he is quick to warn potential startups that a successful social enterprise needs to be the first objective, not a band-aid solution to funding problems.
Social entrepreneurs need to be serious about what they are doing and willing to take on some obstacles. “Too many nonprofits and charities believe that social enterprise is the solution to funding challenges. Social enterprise is not a “cash cow.” Like any business, reaching break-even can take years. Be prepared to lose money in the first few years. So make sure you do it for the right reasons.”
A Thorough Approach to Management
And what about his advice for social leaders, practitioners, and startups?
When it comes to working in the social sector, Don believes in taking a humble approach. “Be patient; do your homework, and don’t skimp on your planning.”
“There is no substitution for good business planning and once you have launched your enterprise, be prepared to adjust the assumptions in your business plan on regular intervals. Also, be prepared to invest in your business. If you have a sound business plan, the start-up is only the beginning. In many cases, it is the easy part. Sustaining and growing the business is the really hard part.”
When asked about his greatest achievement, Don has this to say: “If I were to pick just one, it would be the pride our social enterprise employees have in their businesses and how they describe having a regular job to go to every day has changed their lives. That has got to be my.. our proudest achievement.”
And what will he miss the most? “I guess the satisfaction of playing a significant role in building the sector...I will miss being heavily in the ‘mix.’”
Don plans to spend his retirement riding his many bicycles and providing consulting services for other social enterprises with an emphasis on supporting rural organizations.