Get Serious About Social Enterprise (Idea #4*)

Mar 1, 2012


Social Enterprises have a played a role at the margins of the field of workforce development for decades. Many non-profit organizations supported by public workforce development resources operate social enterprises, even if not directly supported by those government resources. St. Patrick's Center (St. Louis, MO) for example, runs a restaurant called McMurphy's Grill that trains formerly homeless individuals and others who face employment barriers. The project is supported by a combination of grants loans, donations, and the revenue it generates—government is the source of only a small fraction of these resources. 

The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), a San Francisco-based venture philanthropy organization, is unique in its focus on social enterprises as job creation engines. REDF invests in California-based social enterprises—non-profit operated businesses selling goods and services demanded by the marketplace while intentionally creating jobs for young people and adults who would otherwise have difficulty finding them. Importantly, REDF received a Social Innovation Fund grant (there is a new solicitation out right now for this same program—applications are due March 27) for the expressed purpose of developing a social enterprise model that can be scaled nationally, making the organization one-to-watch for workforce development professionals.

There are also for-profit ventures that seek to meet the twin goals of creating employment and delivering products or services valued in the marketplace—like Ben & Jerry's Partnershops. Innovative cooperative models—like Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio—also lie at the intersection of mission and market. These employee-owned for-profit ventures seek to achieve triple bottom-line returns (social, economic, environmental).

The surge of interest in legal entities that can advance social good and meet market needs is evident in the rise of new kinds of businesses—like Low-profit Limited Liability Companies (L3Cs), Flexible-purpose and Benefit Corporations, and Benefit Corporations.

There is even an argument that suggests these hybrid entities are the new philanthropy, making it more urgent that workforce professionals engage with social enterprise strategies.

During the past decade, social enterprises have moved from fringe efforts to the mainstream as the field has expanded and become much more diverse.

Here are a few possiblities (especially at a time when the central problem we face in workforce is not enough jobs):

  • Social enterprises (businesses) that generate resources which can be reinvested into current (and under-resourced) workforce programs (any business can do this—here are a few examples);
  • Social enterprises that employ people and generate products and services needed in the marketplace (like Chicago's Beeline honey-based products); and
  • Social enterprises that employ people and generate products and services needed in the marketplace, which themselves solve social or environmental problems (like the Portland ReBuilding Center or Goodwill Industries).

Yet, the connections between the fields of social enterprise and workforce development (the incubators, funders, associations, conferences and key thought-leaders) are tenuous.

Let's change that (right now).


SPR recently developed a webinar and the following resource guide on social enterprises. We are optimistic about the potential of social enterprise strategies for workforce development.


* This is part of a series of entirely subjective posts intended to inspire greatness among applicants to the Workforce Innovation Fund. The opinions and perspectives expressed here are not those of Social Policy Research, the US Department of Labor (USDOL) or anyone other than the author. Please steal the ideas you find most promising.