Between the dog eat dog world of business and the “let’s save everyone and everything” world of non-profits are social enterprises. I came to the conclusion, that social enterprises’ first priority is to their beneficiaries, while their second priority is to their profit or at the very least their sustainability. Simply stated, social enterprises drive a double bottom line-social justice and then profits. At a recent XL event the various definitions of a social enterprise came to light, and helped us understand one of the reasons why Ching Ching has had to fight tooth and nail for every one of her successes.
XL is an international business that sells membership to its network. The membership price right now is $9,900 and, according to the organization, is on the rise every year. The social justice aspect of the network is two fold. First, many XL members are successful business people looking to give back. They join XL to help use the network to build their own organizations. The second aspect is that XL encourages many of its members to steer their business practices toward social enterprises, in other words, businesses that make a regular practice of giving back to the community.
Ching Ching was invited to attend an XL event by a member who has bought 100 baskets from Salaam Wanita. The morning of the event Ching Ching loaded a taxi full of baskets with the hope of selling a few or making a few contacts to sell to. That didn’t pan out, and her frustration only mounted as the term social enterprise was loosely thrown around and used to refer to businesses that engaged in the occasional community outreach project mainly for the photo opportunity.
Membership to the network was very enticing as members told of their successes and the business model was explained. But Ching Ching wondered out loud, how could a social enterprise ever afford the $9,900 membership. The price seemed exclusionary and unfair. It locked out real social enterprises and invited in dog eat dog businesses. After traveling, by taxi, all the way to the city center at 730 in the morning, unable to sell baskets, she was obviously frustrated at the lack of understanding by people who were supposed to be devoted to social change. It seemed unfair to charge $9,900. After all, if profits were measured in social change, then Salaam Wanita would be able to pay for its membership without a problem.
Being a social enterprise is a challenge. We face tough questions every day. And our questions consider complex concepts such as the value of self-confidence or optimism. When one of our weavers turns in a product of poor quality, we carefully go over the flaws and hold her hand until her quality improves. This may go one for years. We spend time, transportation costs, and administration costs. I would say fire the weaver. But making money is not our bottom line. After five years of hand holding, we barely break even, but said weaver has a steady income and is able to feed her children. Her higher self-confidence helps her break the isolation that contributes to her poverty. How can you put a monetary value on stories like this?
I tried to assuage Ching Ching’s frustration by telling her that she is really a pioneer, and that there are few people in the world like her. In a world driven by money and a hard bottom line, hers is social change. Just as Ching Ching could not imagine firing a weaver for poor quality, a business would not entertain the idea of keeping low quality workers. We finally agreed that social enterprises are so new that the term has not been well-defined and is not well understood.
Who would consider someone well being before their own?
Posted By Mariko Scavone
Posted Jun 23rd, 2007