Richard Graves

Investing in Social Movement Enterprises?

In Innovation, Social Movement Investing on November 5, 2012 at 6:10 am

Richard Graves is the author of this blog and is currently VP of Business Development for Ethical Electric, among other projects he is engaged in.

What is a social movement enterprise? In my definition, a social movement enterprise is an organization that aligns their commercial function with a larger social movement for change, by directly contesting for social or political change through the operations of offering their product or service.

What does that mean and how is it different? There are many social enterprises and social movements around the world, seeking to provide services that benefit the world or mobilize enough collective action to create the change they want to see in the world. However, while many social enterprises seek to directly create social change and share staff or aims with a wider social movement, it is much less common for an enterprise to service or seek to support a social movement in its efforts to build a mass mobilization for social change.

Why does this matter? As the field of mission-related investment has grown and evolved, you can now find investments dispersed widely across the world and on all kinds of issues, from education, clean energy, sustainable food, clean water, and microcredit to medical service delivery. Many of these social enterprises have taken on functions previously delivered by aid agencies, international donor groups, or charities. The field of advocacy, from lobbying operations in western capitals to grassroots campaigns, has been seen as less likely to generate returns or ripe for investment by philanthropists and donors. While advocacy has been a lucrative field for for-profit lobbyists and political campaign consultants, they have often been in service to corporate interest groups or political parties, not social movements.

I believe that Social Movement Enterprises are investable, viable and incredibly high leverage, with the potential to offer market-rate returns while using their brands, marketing reach, and revenues for advancing the aims of a social movement. Critically, for investors that are also donors and seeking to generate additional funds for advocacy of causes, it opens the potential for using investment dollars into sustainable, return-generating companies that do organizing and advocacy and can grow and scale to respond to social challenges too large for current donor resources.

Before this is called to good to be true, there currently exist real world examples of social movement enterprises, even if it appears to be an admittedly sparse field. In the United States, there are a number of enterprises I have identified that share this mix of commercial services and offerings, an embrace of organizing for advocacy and change as an essential element of their business model, and alignment with a larger social movement for change. CREDO Working Assets and the Better World Club as examples of progressive social movement enterprises, Homeboy Enterprises as an example of an anti-gang social movement enterprise.

Internationally, where social enterprises often are more political or engaged in grassroots advocacy, Sughar, which promotes women’s entrepreneurship as an integral part of a campaign for fight violence against women and legal immunity for honor killings or BaliFokus, a renowned community sanitation program than fights for environmental action and human rights for ragpickers, would be examples of action agendas merged with social enterprise operations.

CREDO is perhaps the oldest and most financially successful of these examples and represents an incredible learning opportunity for mission investors. In fact, many of the leading social investment firms came out of the same group of colleagues connected to its origin as a socially responsible investment firm, called Working Assets Money Market Fund. Working Asset’s founders moved from an investment approach to a service operation, focused on mass-market services that they could capture a niche group of mission-aligned customers. However, instead of just offering a service, they used the delivery of that service as an action opportunity.

The realization, from a 1993 New York Times article was “Working Assets controls its own billing and has created a customized document that Ms. Scher said is her company’s greatest innovation. “No one else thinks of the bill as a product,” said Ms. Scher. “They think of the bill as a transaction. This is the crux of our whole operation, and this is where we have fun…The customized phone bill also allows Working Assets to promote timely causes and tell subscribers which corporate and political decision-makers to call or write to have their opinions heard.”

This innovation, merging the commercial transaction with an advocacy opportunity, not only generated phone calls for action, but drove consumer brand loyalty and word-of-mouth sales, so that the operation of the action network didn’t just do activism because the founders cared but was also critical to their bottom line success. This virtuous cycle, where commercial success depends on effective mobilization and activation of members for social movement causes is what differentiates a social movement enterprise from a more traditional social enterprise or corporate social responsibility effort.

A model can be derived from this example and other efforts, allows social investors and entrepreneurs to actually support social movements for change as part of the bottom line. This may be a small market, but I believe it is a critical opportunity for impact investors that perhaps have separate identities as supporters of nonprofits, political or issue advocacy donors, and as investors in sustainable enterprises. Perhaps there is a way to reconcile those identities into an investment thesis? I believe so. Want to find out together?

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