10/30/2012 05:31 EDT | Updated 12/29/2012 05:12 EST

Soup Sister's Recipe for Entrepreneurial Success

Social Enterprise is defined by Donors Forum as "A nonprofit venture that combines the passion of a social mission with the discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with for-profit businesses." The hard truth is that many budding social enterprises, like business start-ups, are doomed to failure. What is it, then, that put Soup Sisters in the winner's circle in this precarious environment?

Claudia Castillo

Why do some social enterprises fail to gain traction within the greater community while others attract an eager, motivated, and significant following? Why, in spite of good ideas, hard work and commitment, do some achieve just a small circle of impact while others grow virally bringing change and profound benefit to the causes they champion?

Social Enterprise is defined by Donors Forum as "A nonprofit venture that combines the passion of a social mission with the discipline, innovation, and determination commonly associated with for-profit businesses."

The hard truth is that many budding social enterprises, like business start-ups, are doomed to failure. Good intent and deep commitment to the mission are clearly not all it takes to ensure a successful outcome. While reliable data on the failure rate of social enterprises is hard to nail down, according to Diana Jue, a member of the MIT Entrepreneurship Review, "even if the failure rate of social start-ups is similar to commercial start-ups -- 50 per cent within the first three years -- the consequences of social enterprises' failures can be serious."

What is it, then, that put Soup Sisters, a thriving social enterprise steamrolling across Canada, in the winner's circle in this precarious environment? The answer lies in this social start-up's business model, the recipe for which includes four interdependent ingredients that ensure its self-sustainability: The Soup Makers, The Volunteer Team, The Soup Recipients and The Culinary Partners and the "everyone wins" value proposition that keeps each of them in it for the long term. This structure enables an enviable break-even operation at the local, event level that allows soup to be made and delivered each month without the need for fundraising, sponsorships or endless grant writing.

Here's how the recipe works: On almost every Sunday evening in 10 cities across the country, hundreds of men and women gather together to make soup. They chop and sauté vegetables, carefully measure out ingredients and patiently monitor the broth in a convivial, collegial but purposeful atmosphere. They may have arrived as a book club, a corporate team building group or to celebrate a friend's bridal shower, but tonight, they are the Soup Makers.

Each individual pays $50 to participate and gives three hours of their personal time to make soup for women's and youth shelters. They learn some useful cooking skills along with the cold, hard facts about the prevalence of domestic abuse from a local shelter speaker who addresses each group. For $50 and three hours invested, the Soup Makers have a social, enlightening evening that makes them feel empowered and gratified that they have really made a difference.

"People are looking for a hands-on way to contribute within a manageable timeframe. When they see the impact of just one evening of working together as a team -- all those litres of hearty soup -- they know they've made a tangible difference in people's lives," says Sharon Hapton, Soup Sisters' founder.

The volunteer teams are the glue in Soup Sisters' model and the shoulders upon which rests every detail of every event in every one of its 10 communities across the country. These committed volunteers manage the bookings in their region and liaise between the Soup Makers and the Culinary Partners to bring each event to fruition. They act autonomously -- like owners of their own Soup Sisters franchise, so to speak -- and are guided by a Procedures and Operations Manual that Hapton created to ensure a consistent, positive Soup Sisters experience in every city.

As new cities join the fold, Hapton travels to each start-up location and trains the volunteer team on the template. Within short order, new cities are flying solo, which has proven to be the big idea behind this social enterprise's sustainability. By nurturing an army of smart, like-minded, big-hearted people who are committed to the social mission and willing to work without pay but with infinite personal rewards, Hapton has cloned Soup Sisters all across the country and freed herself to concentrate on growing the organization. The Soup Sisters Cookbook, released last month is one such new offshoot that is increasing national awareness of family violence and creating a new revenue source to grow Soup Sisters into more regions across the country.

"This is a concept that resonates with many people on many levels. Volunteers have expressed that the idea of taking care of others through soup 'spoke to them' and moved them to inquire about a start-up in their own city. Strong new friendships have blossomed and they have a sense of personal ownership and stewardship of the organization's values," says Hapton.

The Soup Recipients are the raison d'etre for Soup Sisters and the ingredient that draws all partners to the mix. Without women, children and youth in crisis, there would be no need for Soup Sisters. Every month, 25 women's shelters and youth-in-crisis centres across Canada receive a total of 8,000 bowls of nourishing, comforting soup for its residents made by the Soup Makers. In addition to the obvious benefit to the women, children and youth at the shelters, the soup helps to offset the shelters' food costs by approximately 18-20 per cent. Just as importantly, the soup-making gatherings illuminate the issue of family violence to thousands of new potential supporters each year. Women and children in shelters become less isolated from the public discourse. Soup Sisters has brought them thousands of new friends.

The Soup Sisters business model depends equally on the participation of the fourth ingredient: the Culinary Partners. The Culinary Partners are upscale cooking school / catering operations that are interested in Hapton's social mission but motivated by the per-person participation fee that each attendee pays. The fee covers the use of their venue, supervision, wholesome soup ingredients, a Chef or professional facilitator and a culminating soup supper (made by the Soup Makers) and wine at the end of every event. With soup events booked solid more than a year ahead, it behooves the Culinary Partners to commit to the Soup Sisters partnership for the long-term.

Indeed, as a revenue producer for the kitchen, Soup Sisters is actually a customer of the Culinary Partner and afforded all the benefits of good service, fresh ingredients and operational excellence as any customer would receive. The opportunity to gain exposure, attract new customers and model good corporate citizenship through their support of the organization makes the Culinary Partners' association with Soup Sisters a marketing slam dunk.

Based on the Donor Review's definition of Social Enterprise, Hapton assembled all the necessary ingredients to quickly bring her concept to a full boil: passion for the mission, discipline in creating a workable business model, innovation in operationalizing her soup-making vision and determination in spreading it across the country in just three years.

For a Social Enterprise whose potent brew is much more than the sum of its ingredients, Soup Sisters continues to keep its four critical players actively and enthusiastically engaged while shining a much-needed spotlight on the insidious issue of family violence in our country.