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Social Enterprise: From Its Roots to Mainstream Conversation

Posted: 06/29/2013 7:43 am

Can you believe the social enterprise business model has been in existence since before 1900? Yes, it's true! Goodwill Industries was founded in 1895 (although that wasn't its official name until 1915) in Boston by Reverend Edgar Helms. Reverend Helms, theological student, was sent to minister in a struggling inner city mission. When he saw the deplorable conditions these immigrants lived in, Reverend Helms knew he must find a way to employ them. He collected unwanted goods from the homes of the wealthy and allowed immigrants to repair and refurbish them. After they were made suitable for sale, the goods were sold in thrift stores. The profits from the sales paid the impoverished immigrants wages. By 1920 there were 15 Goodwill stores around the country. Reverend Helms had a larger vision for this enterprise though; his goal was to make Goodwill an international organization. Amazingly, this model is successfully used today by Goodwill Industries, and copied by thousands of other organizations. Goodwill Industries is quite obviously a successful social enterprise model that has withstood the test of time. Reverend Helms was a visionary entrepreneur before his time. The Wagner-O'Day Act was passed in 1938 by President Roosevelt. This legislative action paved the way for over 600 social enterprises to employ over 48,000 people with disabilities today. If Social Enterprise has been a successful business model for over 100 years, why are we just now giving it the attention it deserves?

Social Enterprise is practiced around the world. The largest social enterprise in terms of annual sales and size of staff was founded in Spain in 1956. The inspiration for it was due to the large amount of unemployment after the Spanish Civil War. Today the Mondragon Corporacion Cooperative (MCC) consists of 120 companies, 42,000 worker-owners; and operates 43 schools and one college. The internet has given rise to the awareness and effectiveness of the social enterprise movement. Before the rise of the internet several organizations made an impact on their causes, such as Ten Thousand Villages and Denver Children's Museum. Again, these business models have proven successful and have been modeled by others. Bajalia International Group has an online model similar to Ten Thousand Villages supporting artisans in disadvantaged areas and selling their goods around the world. The internet has allowed us to see the impact Social Enterprises are having, and enabling us to study them. Women's Bean Project in Denver, Colorado not only sells there products locally; but, is able to have a worldwide customer base through their website and Wal-Mart.com. Many of our college students want to have a career that provides an income while making a change in the world. By studying model organizations that have created an effective Social Enterprise, they can gather inspiration and knowledge. Some Social Enterprises that are worthy of studying can be found on www.se-alliance.org Here is an excerpt from Seth Godin's blog "Non-profits have a charter to be innovators": "Non-profits have an obligation to be leaders in innovation, but sometimes they hesitate. One reason: "We're doing important work. Our funders count on us to be reasonable and cautious and proven, because the work we're doing is too important to risk failure." One alternative: "We're doing important work. Our funders count on us to be daring and bold and brave, because the work we're doing is too important to play it safe." This is the reason we have to educate the non-profit and philanthropic sectors about social entrepreneurship.

The Stanford Social Innovation Review conducted a webinar recently; in that webinar social entrepreneurs from 4 countries spoke on their experiences in the social enterprise sector. Although social enterprise is in the early adopter phase, it has become a mainstream topic of conversation around the world. Will you join the conversation? I look forward to hearing from you.

Royce Gomez is currently Program Coordinator for Social Entrepreneurship at Christian HELP. She is looking forward to helping social enterprise become a vibrant, mainstream topic. Feel free to connect with Royce on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/roycegomez/

 
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