Observations from the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit 2010, San Francisco

At the end of April, I attended the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit 2010 in San Francisco.  I went there in a rather open-ended way, simply to learn what was going on among those organizations driven by social mission.  I am a late-bloomer in social awareness; I’ve spent most of my life not really tuned into the global and societal issues of our world.  Now I find myself in the beginning stages of a project aimed at connecting science directly with global/societal issues.  I hoped that attending this conference could start to fill the big gap in my knowledge about the second half of that equation– the social mission.  What is it all about?

The experience turned out to be an initiation that truly opened up a whole new world for me.

First of all, what is a social enterprise?  The area of social enterprise is one of such rapid growth and change, that even the definition for what it is has not quite been agreed upon.  However, as defined by the Social Enterprise Alliance, a social enterprise is “an organization or venture that achieves its primary social or environmental mission using business methods.”  As I learned, a social enterprise can be a non-profit that relies on profit-making ventures to sustain itself, or a for-profit business with a social mission as its primary objective.  As I understand it, this marrying of social mission with some profit-making (business) allows the traditional nonprofit organization to financially sustain itself without having to rely completely on charities and donations.  In the case of the for-profit organizations, it may mean compromising some of its profit-making potential to further its social mission.

By its own description, the Social Enterprise Alliance is “the only member organization in North America to bring together the diverse field of social enterprise.”  Its mission: “We envision social enterprise as a widely practiced method for creating a more just and sustainable world.  The Social Enterprise Alliance is an advocate for the field, hub of information and education, and builder of a vibrant and growing community of social enterprises.”

This summit was actually a joint Social Enterprise Summit (11th year) and the Social Enterprise World Forum (3rd year).  The atmosphere at this summit was electrifying.  With over 730 attendees and representatives from over 30 countries around the world, this year’s summit was the biggest one ever.  The participants saw themselves as a part of a movement at an explosive stage of its growth.  As they say in the summit program, after more than a decade of growth, “Social enterprise is no longer an isolated experiment: It has moved into the mainstream across the globe.  For-profit and nonprofit social enterprises are proliferating; the public sector is paying attention to our brand of social innovation; academic institutions are offering course and degree programs; social investors are knocking at the door; the media has enhanced its coverage; and a rising generation of young people is energizing the field.”

I have never experienced a group of people who are so passionate about what they are doing, who know with such clarity that they are living their life purpose, who are so deliberately acting to create a world according to their highest vision.  There were people who were leveraging technology in various ways to empower people to improve their lives (www.benetech.org); collecting and selling used books to support literacy programs for disadvantaged youth (www.open-books.org); providing jobs and training through the operation of a gourmet bakery (www.rubiconbakery.com), operating online ventures to share ideas about sustainable living (www.care2.com) and nonprofit management (www.ideaencore.com); using chemical technologies and related skills to alleviate human suffering (www.chemistswithoutborders.org); and empowering Liberian women to operate textile-related small businesses to become agents of change in their communities (www.madeinliberia.com). There were as many different ways of serving the society as there were people.  Something in these people, at some point in their lives– whether early in childhood or through catalyzing life experiences in adulthood– had been triggered to put in the forefront of their lives service to others as their personal mission.

There was also a large diversity of people at the summit.  The facilitator of the one of the introductory pre-conference workshops, who has led this workshop for the past two conferences and worked in the field for many years, said that this is the first year that she has seen such a diversity of backgrounds.  Of course, in attendance were the long-time workers of the nonprofit sector, many driven by the current economic times to look for innovative ways to sustain their organizations.  There were also those with corporate business experience who were looking to use their skills for a social purpose, social enterprise consultants, and social investors.  However, there were also many people like me, individuals from various fields with just an idea and a passion, striking out for the moment from their regular jobs, who were just beginning this adventure and tentatively putting out their feelers. I especially connected with a librarian from the East coast, who came to this summit independently of her library and her colleagues, because she knew that there must be innovative ways to help her inner-city library survive and thrive.

One panel I found very interesting was one which looked at the way the public sector is working with social enterprise in three countries: the U.K., Canada, and the United States.  The panelists were Peter Holbrook of the UK Social Enterprise Coalition, Anne Jamieson of the Toronto Enterprise Fund, and Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy in the United States Department of Labor.  The striking observation was the difference in the level of progress and the recognition of the social enterprise movement by the government in the three well-developed countries.  From my interpretation of the speakers, it sounded like the movement was in a bit of disarray still in Canada, and picking up speed in the U.S., not yet formally recognized by the government but getting indirect support from it.  However, in the UK, the social enterprise movement has progressed such that a Cabinet Office actually supports and funds a program– the Social Enterprise Ambassadors program– to raise awareness and foster a culture of social enterprise in England.  Peter Holbrook, the CEO of the UK Social Enterprise Coalition, was appointed as one of the Social Enterprise Ambassadors in 2007, and advocates the social enterprise movement through lobbying and representing the sector in the media.

During one of the transition times between sessions, as I stood around looking at the people talking and milling about, I was struck by the thought, ‘Wow, this is where they are…’ I felt that I had found a group of people who are consciously creating the world that they want to live in, in practice.   Many things that they talked about had parallels to the spiritual beliefs I have just recently come to adopt: service to others, creating our world, acting from the heart (passion).  In social enterprise, I saw the future of business. I thought about what it would be like if everyone were doing what he or she feels passionate about, in service to others, using the highest potential of their talents and gifts.  What if every business operated this way?  Forget working at a job that is meaningless to you so that you can pay the rent, while trying to squeeze in time to do what you really believe in; or doing what you believe in but living close to poverty because of it!  I believe that if every person in our world could fully contribute in service to others according to his/her passion and gifts, then all people of our world would not only have their needs met, but live in the flow of abundance.   This is my vision and hope for the world, and I send it out into the Universe!

Are you a social entrepreneur and don’t know it?  (What immediately comes to my mind are those small business owners who have integrated social mission deeply into their businesses, who are working in relative isolation.)  If you are, there are others who feel the same way as you do, and can support you!  Check out the social enterprise movement.

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2 responses to “Observations from the Social Enterprise Alliance Summit 2010, San Francisco

  1. Sounds like a great event. I went to the US Social Forum and had some similar feelings, but with mixed results. There are a lot of people getting radicalized and social entrepreneurs need to get it in gear and offer a main stream option to our existing system before people take to more destructive means of redress.

    • Your experience at the US Social Forum is intriguing- I had not before thought about all the possible reactions and solutions to our times. Looking forward to catching up with you!

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