How to make your relationship work

With less than two weeks to go until the 2015 Social Enterprise World Forum, one of the event speakers and CEO of Belu Karen Lynch talks social enterprise business partnerships. 

Belu is the social enterprise that aims to set the environmental benchmark for the bottled water industry and donates 100% of its profits to WaterAid. CEO Karen Lynch discusses the benefits, challenges and lessons learnt in partnering up with a major international charity.

The search for a soul mate

Pioneers Post: Why did Belu partner with the international charity WaterAid?

Karen Lynch: Belu is first and foremost a social enterprise which sets the environmental benchmark in our market. In doing that the key point we wanted to prove is the ability to be sustainable and that’s why we make profit – 100% of which is invested into WaterAid. 

Why WaterAid? We had to consider a number of things – who do we know in the market? Who is meeting our environmental standards? WaterAid was right at the top of the list. As an organisation they are absolutely the best at delivering the greatest impact in the WASH sector – delivering clean access to water and sanitation (last year WaterAid stated that since 1981 it has reached 21 million people with safe water). 

When setting up the partnership, what we very much wanted to do from the onset was to make this a joint venture. We want WaterAid to view Belu as their business. 

Five years in we are in a much, much stronger place than we were at the outset

PP: How has the partnership with WaterAid developed over time and what have been the main challenges?

We are now five years in and the reality is relationships change and build in time. As with any relationship, whether business or personal, there are key points along the way where you review and ask how is it working? What do you need to change? What do you need to do differently?

For us, we structured the relationship quite formally with review processes around our ideas, sometimes also looking at basic ways of working. By no means is it easy. One of the biggest challenges is understanding that different businesses will have very different cultures. A not-for-profit or traditional third sector organisation is going to be slightly different to a fast moving, small water company. It’s about recognising each organisation’s strengths and weaknesses, and finding ways to navigate through those. Five years in we are in a much, much stronger place than we were in the outset.

Belu's SE100 Index vital statistics:

265/917 on the Growth Index
42/128 for growth in London
4/17 for growth in the hospitality and catering sector
10/10 impact measurement score



PP: Why is the WaterAid partnership so valuable to Belu?

KL: The big thing is that it becomes a win-win situation. Carrying the WaterAid logo and its charity registration number on our packaging means that consumers engage more easily with our water company. This was particularly the case when we started. Social enterprise has still got a big hill to climb with regards to reputation among consumers – it is our responsibility to be completely transparent and prove that we are doing what we say – giving all our profits to WaterAid.

PP: Do more social enterprises need to partner with bigger corporations and charities?

KL: We absolutely need stand alone social enterprises which work quickly, break the rules and set the benchmark in their markets – to be the disrupters or the mosquitoes aggravating the market to be better and more socially and environmentally responsible.

If we can inspire mainstream businesses to become more social as a result of demonstrating that we are more innovative and fast moving as a sector, that will create a big impact.

However, one of the ways in which Belu has been able to grow is through partnerships and collaborations, for example that with WaterAid, so I think you need those in the sector too. It is not about us selling out, it is about us doing what makes sense for the business.

PP: What advice would you give to a social venture looking to go into partnership with a bigger corporate or charity?

KL: The key thing we have learnt is that it is far more complicated than you think. My advice is to be really focussed and clear – don’t make assumptions.

Global vision

PP: Looking ahead to the Social Enterprise World Forum in Milan next week, which issues are you most looking forward to discussing?

KL: We often say that the UK are leading the development of social enterprise globally. It is important that we don’t become arrogant and as a UK contingent we need to make sure we use this forum for learning.

I think there is a huge opportunity for us to form global networks, for example turning social enterprise brands into franchises. Belu is currently looking for partners overseas, which for me is very exciting. Who might we meet in Milan that might set up Belu in Germany for example? Whilst we have some global discussion ongoing, we don’t have enough. 


The Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) was developed and first launched by CEIS – a leading authority in the social enterprise sector and the largest Third Sector business support provider in Scotland. This year the SEWF has been organised by ACCRA-CCS and will take place between the 1st and 3rd of July in Milan, Italy. To find out more, click here.

Photo credit: Belu