Over the past year, I’ve been developing a concept for a new venture that partners corporations with social enterprises. Corporations get access to how some of the most entrepreneurial and innovative organizations are solving the world’s biggest problems and social enterprises get access to skills they need to scale up their efforts and the promise of more enduring relationships with their corporate brethren. We named the concept hopscotch because it represents a leap across boundaries and is meant to encourage a playful, but intense experience – the way kids feel about recess.
The idea came to me about a year ago at a social enterprise networking breakfast that takes place every month here in Baltimore. These events have become a routine fixture of the Baltimore social enterprise scene which is mostly populated by a large cohort of people in their late 20s and early 30s who are engaged in all sorts of initiatives to make Baltimore a better place to live and work.
The week before the breakfast, I had had a meeting with the head of innovation for a large company whose progress I had been following for the past 5 years. During that period, the company’s innovation programs had become fairly well established. They use an innovation software platform to facilitate idea generation and collaboration. They deploy design thinking as a tool for problem-solving and had even hired people associated with the prestigious D School at Stanford. But, even though they were making progress on what is called the “fuzzy front end” of innovation, once promising new ideas were identified and vetted, their teams lacked the entrepreneurial drive needed to get them off the ground. They were big company people who were at a loss when it came to launching a fledgling business on a small scale.
Fast forward to a week later at the SocEnt (every good group has to have acronyms) breakfast. The way it works if you’re like me and only know the person who has invited you, is that you grab some coffee and sit at a table with people you don’t know. It is, after all, a networking event. I found myself at a table with two women who unbeknownst to me were featured presenters at the breakfast. (The breakfasts always showcase some organization that has an interesting story to tell.)
These women were part of MotherMade, a collective that helps low-income women learn how to become entrepreneurs by promoting small scale manufacture of custom-designed and environmentally friendly products. The women design and make small bags and other craft-like items that are sold to corporations as event give-aways. One of the women was a co-founder of the collective and the other was a member. As I listened to them talk about their enterprise, it dawned on me that I was sitting in the nexus of next generation entrepreneurs. The people in the room had founded organizations that busted down barriers of all sorts – race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age – to solve BIG problems. They were full of energy, had clear lines of sight to their goals, and were passionate spokespeople for their organizations.
I went home that morning and was inspired to write down a list of all the things that social entrepreneurs could potentially teach corporate managers. That list was the start of hopscotch. But what really got me excited about the concept went beyond what I felt was an obvious platform for value exchange between corporate and social enterprises. I believe that hopscotch could have a part to play in changing the role of corporations with respect to social impact from the inside out.
Today, most corporate executives understand that something is going on with corporate social responsibility. They are aware that their license to operate depends, in some measure, on the perception that they are good corporate citizens. Consumer brands companies know that they must find ways to insure that their products positively contribute to health and well-being. Large employers, especially those that are the largest employers in a city or region, recognize that their managers and executives should be sitting on nonprofit boards and that they will need to fund charitable causes. They might even provide paid time-off for their employees’ volunteer activities or match individual contributions to charities. Some even have programs for retirees that enroll them in “encore” careers in the social service sector, putting their skills and experience to work on behalf of nonprofits.
I don’t want to appear as if I think that it is anything less than wonderful when capable people devote themselves to making the world a better place or when companies and individuals engage in philanthropic activities. But I can’t help thinking – how does this really change anything? We work the way we always have and do good on our own time. Our profit-making companies get to go about business as usual. The way we work and the way our companies work doesn’t change.
In the future, and I believe it will be a future much nearer than we imagine, corporations won’t be granted the license to operate unless they are able to demonstrate how they manage for social impact in their core businesses. Not in addition to their core business, but through their core business activities. So, it is essential that future leaders are equipped to deliver this outcome. But, they can’t figure it out in the companies they work for today which operate under today’s rules. But they can by working with social enterprises which are delivering social impact right now.
Of course, not everyone buys into this view of the future. A few years ago, I was given an opportunity to present the case for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to the CEO of a very large company. In hindsight, it’s clear that I was invited to be the messenger because I was going to be shot. Let’s just say that the executive team of this company was not comprised of liberal-leaning white men – their politics tended towards libertarian. I remember the CEO stating his position as something along the lines of, “We pay people well and if they want to contribute to social causes with their own money on their own time, that’s their choice.” The idea of corporate philanthropy, let alone corporate social responsibility, had no place in this CEO’s view of corporate stewardship. This was his personal view, of course, but no one on his board had even broached the topic with him, so his personal view was de facto the corporate view. I volunteered the possibility that the expectations of employees or even the company’s customers might be different and that these expectations might be more important than any individual’s, even the CEO’s. My argument was unpersuasive. Today the company has a CSR initiative. But there is no sign that it is anything other than window-dressing and still lacks visible support from the top.
I’ve also gotten this feedback about the idea of partnering corporate and social enterprises that I think reflects an opinion which is held by more people than just the person who voiced it:
“…[It] is not clear that businesses need to be more overtly socially conscious to…[be successful]. In fact, many businesses contribute to the public good by creating products and services that people get utility from and focusing on those core competencies is what benefits society most. I always felt that way at [Company], that our products helped people operate and manage their businesses more effectively and provide better customer service. Won’t many of your target companies feel the same way about what they do? Does it make sense that their employees will really be “taught” by social entrepreneurs?”
Good questions – all of them. However, there are signs that while the answer to the first question – Won’t many of your target companies feel the same way? – is mostly likely “yes,” that the times are changing. How corporations understand their role in society is shifting. Part of operating and managing a business more effectively and providing better customer service will entail understanding how to deliver social impact. And the answer to the second question is clear to me – “Yes.”
More on why in the next blog post.