Nearly 25 years ago, when “social enterprise” was still an exotic term uttered mostly in academia (or perhaps in Europe), financier George Roberts recognized the little-known model as a promising driver of employment – especially for those who found it most difficult to land a job.
In 1997, he launched a foundation, the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), to invest in social enterprises that focused specifically on jobs for marginalized communities. Since that time, REDF has supported more than 200 social enterprises nationwide, helping to generate $1.1 billion in revenue and create more than 69,000 jobs.
We talked to Jo’Vion (J.D.) Greer, VP for Development and Marketing Communications, about what makes an “employment social enterprise,” why they tend to focus on services rather than products, and how consumers can get involved in supporting the mission. This interview was lightly edited for clarity.
CC: Let’s talk about the benefits of employment social enterprises, or ESEs as you guys like to call them. What makes them different and distinct from other small businesses – they all create jobs, right?
JD: Great question. I think what makes social enterprises different is that they focus on helping people with steep barriers to employment get the support they need to succeed in the workplace. People who have been involved with the criminal justice system, who have histories of homelessness, or struggle with mental illness or addiction, for example, have so much to offer, but they need more support than traditional workforce systems are set up to provide.
CC: Are these transitional jobs, or permanent?
JD: Most of the time, it’s transitional employment with paid training that prepares them to move on to permanent jobs – not only to maintain and sustain those jobs, but then also hopefully to have economic mobility.
Social enterprises also offer social supports and a lot of soft skills training that you won’t necessarily get in traditional jobs. It varies, of course, but some social enterprises are offering housing for their beneficiaries, or addiction counseling, or personal finance classes. They go far beyond just simply job training and job interviews.
CC: All of that extra training and support has to cost the business a lot of money. Do the products and services offered by social enterprise tend to cost more as a result?
JD: I wouldn’t necessarily say that. With some social enterprises, you may see prices a little above what market prices would be, but there’s a great explanation for that. They are definitely providing more services to their beneficiaries and that has a cost, but social enterprises know that they need to be able to sell their services and products in the marketplace, and they try to price them as competitively as possible.
I think that also explains why a lot of employment social enterprises tend to set up as a nonprofit –because they know that they’re going to need some additional public and private support in the form of donations to provide all those services.
CC: At Cause Consumer we tend to highlight social enterprise that sell products because we want readers to have the option of supporting the mission no matter where they live. But as I look at REDF grantees, it seems the majority of your ESEs are in the service space as opposed to products. Why do you think that is?
JD: I have a couple of thoughts on that. First, because it’s about employment, and because they have this strong focus on individuals striving to overcome barriers that we discussed earlier, there has to be a consideration for the pipeline. What jobs are most prevalent? What’s most in demand? Service industry jobs are high on that list.
I also mentioned the need to develop soft skills, and more often than not, service jobs lend themselves to that goal. That’s why you’ll see more social enterprises set up to provide service-related offerings as opposed to products.
CC: Unlike a product that can be shipped anywhere, services like cleaning or landscaping or car washing are all place-based. Our readers are committed to supporting businesses with a social mission, but how would they go about finding those companies in their own backyard?
JD: That’s really a great question because we don’t currently know of an exhaustive listing that’s publicly available. But I always welcome people to reach out to us if they want to know whether there’s an employment social enterprise in their area. We will get back to them with anything that we know of in our network.
CC: How many ESEs would you say are out there?
JD: At last count, there were over 500 that we had identified. But one thing we find is that a lot of organizations are doing the work – helping people who’ve faced these steep employment barriers – but they don’t consider themselves an employment social enterprise. So, we have to continue to get the word out and help people identify as part of the social enterprise world.
CC: And finally, talk to me about trends. Where do you see the field of employment social enterprise going in the future?
JD: Don’t take this as an exhaustive look, but I definitely see some trends. One thing is how technology is advancing and what role employment social enterprises can play in it. With some tech jobs, the question that comes up is, “Well, do you need a bachelor’s degree for these roles? Or is a bootcamp sufficient? Or maybe an apprenticeship?” When that becomes a viable option, it provides more opportunities for employment social enterprises to do the training in those areas.
Something else we’re seeing is large, traditional companies saying things like, “Let’s take a deeper look at second-chance hiring.” They’re focusing more on a lot of the groups and individuals that our employment social enterprises are trying to help. The job roles aren’t necessarily new – things like call center support, front desk/reception staffing, and office maintenance – but we’re seeing more and more opportunities for employment social enterprises to provide those services to big companies.
A Final Word
Want to support employment social enterprises with your spending? Check out REDF’s Social Enterprise Gift Guide for companies in the consumer product space or read past Cause Consumer stories filed under the Hope category.
For services, it gets a little trickier, but here’s a pro tip: In your search engine, type the service that you’re looking for – lawn care or catering, for instance – plus the word “nonprofit” and your city or state. It’s not foolproof, but because so many employment social enterprises are organized as 501(c)(3) organizations, you might turn up some surprises.
For service providers, especially, word of mouth is key. If you know an employment social enterprise doing great work in your area, feel free to give them a shout out and share a link in the Comments section below.
Spend for good: If you live near Nashville, Minneapolis, or Columbus and would like to support the local ESEs featured in this article, you can learn more at Crossroads Campus, All Square, and Freedom a la Cart.
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