Given the challenging economic conditions that continue to exist as a consequence of the Great Recession of 2009, there are still fewer job opportunities available than are needed in order to achieve strong growth. This situation has been particularly difficult for the range of public and non-profit agencies that are actively involved in the promotion of workforce development for communities located throughout our state and nation.
There is, however a growing trend that seeks to move beyond the traditional workforce model of first offering skills training to job-seekers and then attempting to place these individuals into whatever jobs might be available. This new practice is known as the social enterprise movement. According to the Social Enterprise Alliance – a national organization for practitioners of this new approach, “social enterprises are businesses whose primary purpose is the common good.” More specifically, social enterprise organizations seek to utilize well-established and proven business practices, coupled with the power of their local marketplaces, to advance clearly defined social, environmental and human justice agendas.
Generally speaking, there are three characteristics that distinguish a social enterprise from other types of businesses, nonprofits, or government agencies:
- A social enterprise directly addresses an intractable social need and serves the common good, either directly through its products and services or through the number of disadvantaged people it employs.
- For a social enterprise, its commercial activity serves as a strong revenue driver, whether a significant earned income stream within a nonprofit’s mixed revenue portfolio, or a for profit enterprise.
- At the core of any social enterprise, the common good is the organization’s primary purpose.
At present, the Social Enterprise Alliance has more than 900 members, and 13 chapters covering 11 states. The origins of the movement began as early as the late 1970’s, but the broad emergence of this model was not fully realized until much later. Here in Maryland, a number of local non-profit organizations have been actively involved in the creation of social enterprises over the years. A few examples – noting the business venture they currently operate – are noted below.
- Evergreen Project: healthcare co-op; member-owned insurance plan
- Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake: recycling; retail services; temporary staffing
- Humanim: document management; deconstruction; moving and storage; janitorial services
- Vehicles for Change: automotive services; vehicle re-use
In Other States
- Catalyst Kitchens (Washington state): commercial food-service; restaurants
- Chrysalis Enterprises (Los Angeles, California): street maintenance; facilities management
- Cleanslate (Chicago, Illinois): neighborhood beautification; property preservation
- Women’s Bean Project (Denver, Colorado): gourmet food production; handmade jewelry manufacturing
These organizations have found that their social enterprise businesses not only create jobs but also foster economic opportunity for ancillary business development for community residents. If a company can provide the consumer with what they need at the right value and allow them to contribute to solving social and environmental challenges, such a venture will have strong market appeal. The result is a sustainable approach for creating a reliable revenue stream of unrestricted funds, thereby extending the efficacy of the non-profit in meeting tomorrow’s challenges.