Guest Post: Social Enterprise—More Than Just a Buzzword (Part I)

By Kevin Lindsay
Harvests, Inc.

Recently, we published SERIC-2013, a comprehensive report on Social Enterprise Readiness in Colorado-2013.  It was the result of our study developed in conjunction with one of the state’s leading capacity builders, Community Resource Center, and was designed to study social enterprise activity taking place among Colorado’s nonprofits.

We uncovered very compelling, and in many instances, surprising data. For example, in our case studies we learned about an enterprise initiative based in Colorado Springs that employs more than 40 individuals with autism. Amazingly, the nonprofit venture achieved breakeven on a self-sustaining basis just six months after opening its doors.  We were also introduced to a Denver-based nonprofit enterprise delivering workforce development services to more than 1,000 disabled and financially challenged individuals yearly.  After more than four decades, the organization now derives 78 percent of its current $8.2 million annual budget from multiple lines of commercial business and services it owns and operates.

The study revealed some interesting statistics as well as identified many challenges to growth—both of which we will share in part II of this series—but first, we thought it would be helpful to go back to basics.

So what are social enterprises? The Social Enterprise Alliance describes them as “businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental and human justice agendas.” Then there’s the common adage that perhaps most succinctly describes social enterprise:  Doing charity by doing trade.

But isn’t the term “social enterprise” only a loupe on what nonprofits have been doing for years?  When you consider the revenue-generating activities taking place in the sectors of health and human services, the arts and culture,  science and education, theoretically, the answer is yes!  Essentially, foundations and the giving community at large have supported social enterprises here in Colorado for more than a century.

Contemporary social enterprise initiatives (many which trace their roots to the rise of the Ashoka movement in the early 1980s and are supported by the efforts of the nation’s leading academic institutions) are on the rise in many regions in the U.S.  As a result, the landscape is widening in significant ways, and it now includes new structures and actors, e.g. benefit corporations and low profit limited liability companies (L3C’s), sustainable enterprises, cross-sector partnerships or collaborations—all collectively carving out “social entrepreneurship” as a wholly new segment of our economy.

Be sure to look for next week’s part II post, where we will share specifics from the SERIC-13 report.

Kevin Lindsay is the founder and Managing Director of Harvests Inc., a consulting firm that provides strategic marketing and operations support to nonprofit social enterprise initiatives.  In 2004 Kevin and the Harvests team helped spearhead the establishment of Independent Spectrum (IS—a successful collaborative venture sponsored by five regionally-based philanthropies known as Voqal).  The IS companies acquire and commercially lease proprietary FCC broadband frequencies.  Kevin and Harvests also helped launch Voqal’s newest company, Mobile Citizen™ (the first 4G mobile broadband service exclusively for schools and non-profits).   Currently, Harvests is leading station acquisition and operations efforts for Independent Public Media, a new Voqal initiative established to preserve America’s public television airwaves.

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