Social Enterprise

As CEO of Goodwill in central Indiana, I frequently described our overall objective in general terms as “maximizing mission-related impact while maintaining a financial position that’s good for the organization’s long term viability.”

Taking this approach has required us to define “impact” as well as possible. This has always been a work-in-progress, with improvements in definition and performance over time. Placing substantial importance on mission-related as well as financial metrics is a key feature of a social enterprise. And while “social enterprise” is a relatively recent term, Goodwill has always been one.

From its inception, Goodwill has used a commercial means (selling used goods in a competitive marketplace) to accomplish a social mission. The scope of that mission, originally to provide work for people with limited options, has broadened and now often encompasses other ways of enabling individuals and families to increase their economic self-sufficiency. Still, since its founding, Goodwill has earned and continues to earn the vast majority of its revenue from the sale of products and services. This is unusual for a community-based not-for-profit, and I have always viewed the way and the extent to which the organization blends business and mission as one of Goodwill’s most unique characteristics.

Until recently, it was often difficult for for-profit corporations to include social goals as primary objectives – especially if there was a desire to emphasize the social goals much as the financial goals. Now, however, new corporate options such as the benefit corporation make it possible to do so. Benefit corporations must balance financial and non-financial objectives when making decisions – much as Goodwill always has. Companies that want to go a step further can apply to become Certified B Corps, thus adding more rigor to measuring their social and environmental performance, as well as to monitoring their adherence to high standards in several other areas as well.

Along with the rise in benefit corporations is the notion of “impact investing.” Impact investors make investments in companies that are designed not only to make a profit, but also to achieve a well-defined, measurable social good. Some, though not all, impact investors are willing to take less than a market rate of return in order to help accomplish what they view as important social goals.

These and other innovations are attractive to a lot of millennials who, while interested in having successful careers, are also interested in helping make the world a better place. I’ve met quite a number of them on college campuses where, increasingly, students can take courses – often taught in business schools – on social entrepreneurship. I’ve also served as a judge in a major social venture competition and seen some of the ideas of some very bright young social entrepreneurs. They give me hope!

Benefit corporations, Certified B Corps, impact investing – all of these are new tools for addressing social problems. None represents the solution anymore than does the not-for-profit sector as presently constituted. But in the U.S., the inability of the not-for-profit and public sectors to substantially reduce a lot of major social problems in recent decades makes the addition of some new tools particularly welcome. Perhaps we can all learn from each other and, who knows, even leverage our respective assets and capabilities and come up with some new approaches that will be more effective in improving lives and strengthening communities.

Advertisements