Why Some Social Enterprises Succeed (And Others Don’t): Learnings From Cambodia


If you could answer the age-old question of why some things in life succeed, and others don’t, then you know a lot more than I or the average person could answer. But, in my travels, I’ve discovered a few things that are a pretty good indicator for success. Particularly, what makes a social enterprise succeed (or fail)?

As co-founder of a social enterprise myself, the topic is close to heart. Australia has a bourgeoning social enterprise scene; there has never been a better time to start a social enterprise. However, business – even business for good – is difficult, even at the best of times. Not discounting the fact there are many critical facts that make for success in the modern world (business models, finances, and legal structures, etc.) I wanted to delve into some of my learnings from the week my co-founder Lara and I recently spent in Cambodia canvassing these very issues.


Through this series, we’re seeking to bring you the freshest insights and coverage of the Youth Entrepreneurs & Leaders Speaker Series, an initiative funded and supported by the Australian Government, curated and designed by Australian social enterprise Social Good Outpost.


We headed to the hot and steaming tropical country of Cambodia at the end of July to spend a week working with the Australian Embassy and local social enterprises, think tanks and NGOs all around a few key themes: including gender equality and social enterprise. We were there as part of a partnership with the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is seeing us curate and run a range of events, workshops and more throughout Southeast Asia over the next 18 months – with the aim of strengthening the connections and impact of young changemakers and leaders across our society.

Lara Stephenson and Elise Stephenson, workshop with the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights on telling the right story.

Lara Stephenson and Elise Stephenson, workshop with the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights on telling the right story.

Across the week, we ran workshops on how to brand and tell the story about your social enterprise – working with start-ups and micro-loaning organisations such as SHE Investments and Impact Hub Phnom Penh. We canvassed some of the cool and innovative ways that Australian social enterprises told their stories (we’re looking at you Who Gives a Crap, Thankyou and Food Connect), as well as looking at examples of what’s working in Cambodia (Wat Than Artisans spring to mind).

We also worked with youth think tanks including Future Forum and Politikoffee to explore some of the ins and outs of social entrepreneurship, and the challenges we still face: such as a lack of formal social enterprise legal structures, and sometimes, a lack of awareness for what social enterprise even is. For many of the young people we worked with, the notion of doing business in a way that also produces social outcomes felt natural – even if the notion of ‘social enterprise’ was new to them.

Q&A on ‘branding for social enterprises’ held with SHE Investments and Impact Hub Phnom Penh.

Q&A on ‘branding for social enterprises’ held with SHE Investments and Impact Hub Phnom Penh.

There were a number of key learnings that came from the week around what makes some social enterprises succeed, and others not.

Firstly was that we need actual, tangible, physical spaces to thrive. Secondly, that education and awareness-raising within the wider community and government spaces is crucial to social enterprise success. And thirdly, that the way you tell your story matters.

The first key learning was that without space, it is hard for the seeds of initiatives to even be planted, let alone grow.

In Phnom Penh we were fortunate enough to work across spaces such as The Factory, a 500 square foot abandoned factory space converted into open spaces, co-working hubs, offices, manufacturing areas and even accommodation. It had seen the start-up and growth of a brand of business that sought to do more than just take: with cool social enterprises all seen at a casual glance around the place.

The artisans at work – Wat Than Artisans employs individuals affected by a disability in the creation of traditional handcrafts.

The artisans at work – Wat Than Artisans employs individuals affected by a disability in the creation of traditional handcrafts.

But the sanctity of these spaces was not guaranteed. Some of the individuals we met lamented that there was a time limit to this incredible space – only five years before it was to be demolished to be redeveloped into apartments. There were a few other spaces available, such as the Futures Factory & Impact Hub grounds, but besides these, the lack of spaces to gather, debate and grow initiatives for any kind of impact were limited. In fact, one of the most successful social enterprises we witnessed in Phnom Penh was borne out of temple grounds – perhaps one of the few grounds with enough space and goodwill to see a fledgling initiative grow.

The lesson for me, and perhaps Australia more widely, is that: we need spaces that are friendly and open to social enterprises. Not just start-up hubs or another co-working space dedicated primarily to one kind of user or industry, but genuinely open and collaborative spaces that are more than a short-term ‘fix’.

Without it, we often don’t have the opportunity to network, fundraise, be ‘public’ enough to gain support, or even have areas to test our ideas outside our own garages (a model which only works for some start-ups, I assure you).

Wat Than Artisans shop in the Wat Than temple complex.

Wat Than Artisans shop in the Wat Than temple complex.


Secondly, many of the individuals we met in Cambodia claimed that Cambodia’s social enterprise scene was fledgling – which in many ways you could say is the same for Australia too. Despite this, both countries have some incredible, and well-developed social enterprises that are highly competitive and manage to hit some incredible social impact goals. Nevertheless, how many people even know what social enterprise is?

We worked with over 300 individuals directly across the week and I would say that only a small percentage had a good understanding of what social entrepreneurship meant, and even fewer could name any.

I see the issue in Australia too: why spend an extra dollar (or even the same amount, or less) on social enterprise? Who are social enterprises, and “aren’t they just charities?”

Social Good Outpost workshop with Future Forum on social enterprise.

Social Good Outpost workshop with Future Forum on social enterprise.

Without education and awareness-raising in wider society, it might seem doomed that social enterprise will only ever be taken up by a limited audience and percentage of the population.

In a world where we have increasing, and difficult, social and environmental issues, we can’t afford for people not to understand the value of doing business (and making profit) in a way in which has a social or environmental purpose or benefit. We need all the supporters we can get.

I think this has something to do with my third point, which is that the way we tell our story matters. As co-founder of a branding, graphic and web design agency (Social Good Outpost), this point was one that struck me. One of the incredible organisations we worked with throughout the week was the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), an NGO that teeters on the edge of a range of politically and socially sensitive issues across Cambodia. One of the workshops we ran was all around how to market and brand (i.e. tell the story of) one of their products – the Rainbow Krama.

The Rainbow Krama is a rainbow-coloured hand-loomed scarf, weaved using traditional methods of artisans handed down over the generations. The Rainbow Krama is different to any other Krama:

a) in that it is rainbow,

b) it is loomed by LGBTIQ artisans in the provinces who have struggled under homophobic and transphobic discrimination and harassment,

c) the profits return to the artisans, and,

d) through selling the product, the aim is to normalise and de-stigmatise LGBTIQ in Cambodian society.

For a Western audience, it was evident that many elements of this story would sell: from the fact it is a traditionally-made garment, to the story of the people whom make it and the cause it supports. However for the Cambodian audience, CCHR had been struggling to get it right – as soon as people read about the cause, it would often turn them off buying the scarf. For us, we thought hard about what the purpose of the scarf was, eventually resting on the decision that the primary aim was to sell the product (that is the ‘business’ and without sales, there was no sustainability for the business, or income for the people the social enterprise sought to support). Secondary to that, was to raise awareness about LGBTIQ issues and the artisans through the story, and so we worked with the organisation to craft two separate ways of talking to audiences that may love the cause, or, not.  

It reinforced for me that firstly, the story you tell has to respond to the audience you tell it to, and secondly, that it is important to keep in mind the end goal, as that will influence everything from the way you brand, to market and eventually sell your product or service.

Elise Stephenson chatting at the ‘branding for social enterprises’ workshop in Phnom Penh.

Elise Stephenson chatting at the ‘branding for social enterprises’ workshop in Phnom Penh.

While my three biggest learnings are not an exhaustive list of why some social enterprises succeed, and others don’t, they were key learnings that cut across issues in both Australia and Cambodia:

  • We need space to thrive.

  • We need wider awareness amongst buyers and supporters around what is social enterprise, and who are some enterprises they can support.

  • And, as businesses that must remain viable in an open competitive market, it’s often our story that will make us stand out from the rest: so think about your audience, and tell the right audience the right story that will make the difference to your overall impact and sustainability.

Australia now is a public diplomacy program of the Australian Government, spearheaded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in a country or region of significance each year. The program celebrates Australia’s creative excellence, diversity and builds relationships for the future. This year, Australia now has a focus on youth, aiming to engage youth audiences and cement long-standing ties between Australia and surrounding member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Social Good Outpost has partnered with the Australian Government to deliver the Youth Entrepreneurs & Leaders Speaker Series across ASEAN in 2019 and 2020. Follow our events & updates at: www.socialgoodoutpost.com.au/Australia-now

We thank the generosity of the Australian Government for funding and supporting the Youth Entrepreneurs & Leaders Speaker Series.


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