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Building an economy on purpose


There’s no doubt that how the world comes together is changing.  So much of it is beautiful and joyful as we discover new cultures, some is hateful and drenched in fear.  But what we do know is that economies, how we all make our living and get the scratch we need to live, love, and be happy is changing faster than most of us can possibly keep up with.  How can we build an economy on purpose?

You can read that last sentence several ways, and they are all important.

SEA logo

This is what the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) 2013 Summit in Minneapolis, starting  19 May, is about.  Social Enterprises exist to use the power of free markets to promote social good – businesses that are self-sufficient, stable institutions out to not make a profit but to improve the world in some way.  The techniques and lessons of making that happen are not always obvious, and these annual summits are a key tool for advancing the cause and making sure that the change we are all buffeted by eventually works for all of us – on purpose.

The SEA as an organization has a unique charter.  They describe Social Enterprise this way:  “As a country and global community, we stand at a unique inflection point. It appears that the world’s problems are outstripping our ability to address them, but what may be more accurate is simply that traditional institutions are no longer sufficient.  Social enterprise is emerging as the ‘missing middle’ sector between the traditional worlds of government, nonprofits and business.”

That’s a powerful statement because it starts from the harsh reality of the world we live in.  There are many things that simply need to be done for us to live in a decent and civil world, but some of them are not set up be paid.  Who will raise the kids?  Build the community?  Take care of those who have trouble taking care of themselves?  Do we have to rely on charity and a heart-rendering appeal to make sure that the good work is all done?  Or raise taxes and set up another branch of government?

Increasingly, the answer is that there is another way – social enterprise.

Social enterprises are a growing trend all around the world.  They can, and usually do, work with charitable and government agencies to make things happen.  What they often do is provide the interface with the market that is essential to making a project work.  The easiest examples are in community building, such as what we do in the Fort Road Federation as we redevelop the old Schmidt Brewery and its Rathskeller.

But there is much more to it than that, because much of the good work that is needed in the world can be hooked up with a source of income.  One example here in Minnesota is Finnegan’s, a brewery that gives all of its money to feed the poor. Peace Coffee works for economic justice for farmers and promote healthy local economies and sustainable business practices by opening up a market for coffee grown to these standards.

It is not always easy to start enterprises like this.  A lot of the sessions will be devoted to raising capital, finding talent, and other things that are often greeted with little more than a raised eyebrow in the purely for-profit world.  The movement is still young, but it has developed a track record with enough success and experience to share to help spread the benefits to more and more all the time.

That’s why one block of sessions is called “Spirit” – people in the field often need to do nothing more than swap stories and hook up with each other.  As one of the speakers notes in their program description, “I love my work, but it can be lonely, too, and most of my friends really don’t get it.”  Quite a confession.

But that’s what it means to be a pioneer, and people in these fields are still learning how to make it work.  It is about that work, though, and nothing but that work – not profit, but doing good in the world.  Getting together all the resources to make it happen is a bit harder, but the rewards are seen in the communities and the hearts that are touched by it.  That’s often reward enough.

The SEA Summit ’13 runs from Sunday, 19 May through Wednesday, 22 May.  It’s already sold out, but Register online here if you don’t want to miss out — I for one will be there to report on what’s happening.  See you there?

This post was written by Erik Hare and originally published on Barataria. Follow Erik on Twitter: @wabbitoid. 

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Comments (1)

Thanks and 1 correction

Erik, Thanks for your on-target post.

One correction: the Summit IS NOT sold out.

The Summit Marketplace, which is Monday night from 5:30-7:30 is "sold out only for exhibitors." We reached capacity with 50 diverse organizations who will showcase their products and services.

This Monday night event is free and open to the public, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Greater TC United Way.

As the board chair for the SEA Twin Cities Chapter, I invite everyone to attend the SEA Summit and the Marketplace.