James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

How To Set Up A Social Enterprise For Conservation

My aim for writing this article is to encourage more people to set up social enterprises – let’s get that out there.

I think the most important thing to say, right from the start, is that you don’t have to know what you’re doing. I still don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m learning more and more every day. Don’t let a fear of failure discourage you from taking your first steps.

What Is A Social Enterprise?

Here’s the technical definition:

A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being, rather than maximizing profits for external shareholders.

But a slightly less wordy definition might be an organisation whose goal is primarily social or environmental, rather than solely profit.

What does this mean in practice? Well, often as a result of selling products or services, a sizable portion of the profits are donated to charities, communities or causes. This can be a powerful business plan too, because ethically minded customers might choose to buy your product because they know it helps a good cause.

In terms of conservation, which generally has wide public support, but not a lot of money – this concept seems to have a lot of potential!


Why Set Up A Social Enterprise?

You might have any number of motivations, from helping to support a local cause to giving your business an ethical edge. Whatever the reason, if you’re giving a portion of your profits to a good cause (especially if it’s conservation), then good for you! In this article I’m going to talk a little bit about my own experience of the process (so far).

My motivation for building Discover Conservation was fairly simple. I enjoyed running websites and writing articles about cool conservation fieldwork. At the same time, I knew that an endless stream of young people were looking for small grants or sponsorship to help get their expeditions and conservation projects off the ground.

I realised that a social enterprise could, if I was lucky, manage to achieve both of these things at once.


Some Thoughts On Taking That First Difficult Step

For a long time I didn’t do anything, because I didn’t know where to start. I had the seed of an idea, but if it was a good idea, then someone else would probably have done it already, wouldn’t they?

The thing that kicked things off for me was an application for a small ‘Try It’ grant from my university, sponsored by UnLtd. I pitched my idea, and to my surprise they liked it. Now, I had £500 to ‘try’ my social enterprise, and see if it might work. This is what I was able to build with that modest grant.

The moral of the story is that there’s lots of funders and initiatives out there willing to help, and I’ll post a list of possible opportunities at the bottom of this article.


The Rewards From Building A Social Enterprise?

When I was a teenager, I started to get involved with conservation expeditions and applied to dozens of grants, awards, sponsors and funding bodies, in the hope of making it happen. Some of them, amazingly, were willing to help. If they hadn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have been bitten by the conservation bug, and I’d wager that I’d find my days far less fulfilling.

I have lots of friends who have been similarly helped, and it seems like a worthwhile thing to do, to try and give a small amount back. That’s the main reason I decided to set up Discover Conservation.

But it wasn’t entirely altruistic. Running the site gives me the opportunity to meet and interview a whole host of interesting scientists and conservationists from around the world.

What Discover Conservation doesn’t give me is money, and I’ll talk more about that next.

Related Article: Building A Social Enterprise


Earning Money From A Social Enterprise..

Social enterprises are often businesses too, normally giving a portion of profits to a good cause – so of course, there is potential to make a modest income for yourself too, if your idea is successful. There’s definitely nothing wrong with that, especially as remuneration for the amount of time you are likely to have spent working on it.

But partly because I was so unsure whether Discover Conservation would work, and partly because I wanted to keep the concept incredibly simple; I decided 100% of profits should go to our ‘good cause’. In our case, that’s grants for young conservationists.

Not only will this maximize the money we can raise, but I also hope it will help encourage advertising partners, to give us a try.

At the moment, we’ve been able to cover all of the costs (like website hosting and domain registration), from the initial grant, and I’m hoping this will be able to continue as we grow!


The Beauty Of Knowing It Might Fail

The nice thing about Discover Conservation is that it’s success is largely up to the audience.

If people enjoy the articles, if they find them engaging, they sign up to facebook, twitter, even our newsletter(!) and they keep coming back for more – then we’ll do well. Our traffic will grow, we’ll start turning up in search engines and more and more organisations will think it’s worth their while advertising with us. Overall, we’ll make more money and be able to give away more and larger grants.

On the other hand, maybe there’s just not enough people interested in reading stories from scientists working in the field. Maybe they’re out there, but we won’t be able to find them. Maybe someone else will be able to do it better (see below). If that happens, then that’s OK!

I might see it differently if I was trying to make a living from a portion of the profits, but at this stage, what have you got to lose!


Patenting, Copyright, Intellectual Property and Stealing Ideas!

“What if someone steals your idea! You need to look into copyright..”

That was the advice of a very good lawyer friend of mine, and I hurriedly thought I had better follow it! But then I thought again. Say someone came along, set up a similar project, and proceeded to run it far better than I ever could (and in theory, raised a whole load more money than I could hope to), then that, in my book, would be a resounding success!

It’s important to remember that the social enterprise isn’t necessarily about ‘you’ – if you are setting up to support a cause, then make that your priority.

In reality, the legal side of things are complicated, and expensive. In your early days, surely it’s best to focus on trying to make your idea a success, rather than worrying about a myriad of possibilities.


The Legal Side Of Being A Social Enterprise

Speaking of legalities, if you’re serious about setting up a social enterprise, you have two main routes as far as I can tell.

The Early Days:

When you’re just setting up to see if your idea works, you probably don’t want to spend a lot of time filling out legal documents, and you might not be making very much profit yet. The simplest approach in this case, is to be an unincorporated association. Don’t worry if you don’t know what this means, you probably fulfil most of the criteria already without even realizing.

In practice this means:

You personally are responsible for your organisation.

Profit is taxed as the income of the individual.

On the plus side this doesn’t involve registration or filing of documents.

If You Keep Growing:

If you keep growing, then there seems to be a lot more steps you can take. I don’t know from experience, because Discover Conservation hasn’t made it that far yet. And I would add, that it’s not something I’ll worry about until we’re much more established.

Becoming incorporated gives you a legal framework, and separates you from your organisation.

A good option is a community interest company (more info)

Or even getting charitable status.

…but don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s worth seeing if your idea works first!

RESOURCE: Socialenterprise.org has a great document explaining all of this.

Useful Examples of Environmental Social Enterprises

Blue Ventures

A science-led social enterprise that works with coastal communities to develop transformative approaches for nurturing and sustaining locally led marine conservation.

Summit Clothing

Here at Summit Clothing we have set out to be different. The world is too vast for one company to change by itself but the wilderness is now sadly small enough that one company can make a big difference.

Wild Days Conservation

We run high-quality working holidays UK wide that support the work of conservation and wildlife research. We aim to bring a new group of interested and engaged people into the world of hands-on wildlife conservation.

Nature Spy

NatureSpy is a non-profit organisation that aims to research and protect wildlife and natural habitats as well as educating and involving local communities, businesses, young people and anyone seeking to retrain, engage or participate in the conservation of wildlife.

Bittern Countryside CIC

The Bittern Countryside Community Interest Company was formed to carry out activities which benefit the community, and in particular, to work to conserve and enhance the Arnside & Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.


We are a social enterprise that builds and operates modern facilities that mills, fortifies, and markets rice cultivated by smallholder farmers in West Africa.

Advice From A More Established Social Enterprise

One thing I’ve been really keen to do with Discover Conservation, is work with other social enterprises. One that got on board as a partner very early was Nature Spy. They’re a bit further down the road than us, and look to be growing really well. They very kindly offered a few words of wisdom on the whole process…

“In terms of advice – I’d definitely say make sure your basis for a social enterprise is robust, and don’t be afraid to go for it. Starting NatureSpy has led to more opportunities and experiences than I could have possibly imagined, even at this early stage.
I’d also say be patient (very patient!) – it can take a while for things to take-off. You have to be prepared to work and work and work and never give up.
The rewards can be great though; not just on a personal level either – obviously a social enterprise exists to give back to society and/or the environment, and when that happens its fantastic!”


Advice For Next Time…

Start Sooner: I wish I’d got on with it when I first had the idea.

Think Bigger: Perhaps I should have been more ambitious about the funding I asked for.


Resources For Building A Social Enterprise

Bank accounts for social enterprises – A comparison of different options

About socialenterprise.org.uk – A site full of useful resources and advice

Conservation Enterprises Unlimited – They “help social & environmental enterprises to hatch, grow, and become profitable, so they can make effective differences to their causes and communities.”

ClearlySo –  “Helps social entrepreneurs raise capital. Our goal is to grow the social investment marketplace and help build a more social economy.”

The Ecologist – Advice on how to set up a social enterprise.

Can I be a social entrepreneur and be green? – A nice article from The guardian.

Key Things To Think About – Startup Donut


Funding Opportunities For Social Enterprises

UnLtd – The leading provider of support to social entrepreneurs in the UK and offers the largest such network in the world. UnLtd resources hundreds of individuals each year through its core Awards programme.

Big Lottery Fund – Millions of pounds from the National Lottery to good causes.

Funding Central – A big directory of funding opportunities.

Social Enterprise.org – A good list of sources of finance and funding.

GRANTfinder – Another good database with a variety of grant opportunities.

I’m sure there’s more that I haven’t mentioned, so feel free to let me know in the comments.