Last week on our Facebook and Twitter pages we linked to an article critiquing TOMS shoes and providing two alternative examples for socially conscious shoe businesses. This article highlights one of the greatest struggles in the social enterprise movement: the confusion surrounding social consciousness, corporate social responsibility, and social enterprise

If you google “social enterprise”, “corporate social responsibility”, or “socially conscious business”, the majority of what you will find is either:

  1. Nonprofit organizations that borrow business practices to achieve social aims OR
  2. For-profit organizations whose social responsibility equates to charitable aid, either through donating a percentage of their profits or, as in the case of TOMS, a buy-one-give-one model.

There is very little conversation on the type of social enterprise Agora is about: for-profit businesses whose social purpose is woven into the heart of the company, who make money with integrity while providing a sustainable solution to the problems of vulnerable communities.

In our research, we’ve come across a company called Accessible Partners cited in a Business News Daily list of 20 Socially Responsible Businesses from a couple years ago. Ironically, the majority of the other 19 companies in the article incorporated social responsibility into their business through the donating of goods or money. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Agora itself is, after all, a nonprofit that relies partially on donations), it also misses the mark on the real core of social enterprise. Business has such great power to solve problems in sustainable ways through the business itself, not just through activities separate from the business itself.

World-changing social enterprise must tap into this. Social responsibility doesn’t have to be an added limb to a business, it can be the very heart of the business! For most of the companies in that article, social purpose was not core to the company’s practices and existence. It could easily be stripped away. But Accessibility Partners was different.

The excerpt about them from the article reads,

Accessibility Partners – Many people take their computers, smartphones and tablets for granted, but for those with disabilities, using these technologies can present significant challenges.Accessibility Partners works with private and public IT manufacturing companies, federal agencies and other organizations to test and review products that make information technology accessible to individuals with a variety of disabilities. More than 70 percent of the company’s employees have disabilities themselves, so the company promotes disability advocacy in all of its operations


Markers of True Social Enterprise

Without knowing the ins and outs of this company’s operations, there seem to be four things about Accessibility Partners that mark true social enterprise:

Identifies of a Societal Problem

We live in a technologically driven world. Ability to operate that technology effectively is key to modern-day survival and the prevention of isolation. Accessibility Partners identified a problem: those who are disabled often find much of our modern world inaccessible. They recognized the threat this poses to society: the marginalization of the disabled, and society’s loss of the disabled’s contributions.

Provides of a Sustainable Solution to the Problem

Identifying a problem is only as useful as the solution provided for it. Accessibility Partners has figured out a line of services and processes to provide a sustainable solution to the problems of accessibility for the disabled. The solution is sustainable for a number of reasons. Their About page says this:

We have successfully completed hundreds of projects for both industry and government clients. Throughout our operation, our staff has worked extensively as an exclusive accessibility partner providing top level testing, consulting, and training services.

Each project they complete raises awareness of the needs of the disabled and changes the course of accessibility not just for one person but for future generations.

Profit is Made Through the Solution to the Problem

Accessible Partners could have started a nonprofit in which they raise awareness, employ volunteers, operate on donated funds, and give away their services. Instead, they chose to exist as a for-profit company. Their services create wealth that pours back into the local economy, but the social purpose isn’t lost because the profit is being made through meeting a real need via a real solution. Plus, they are creating jobs. The for-profit model allows them to be self-sustaining.

Employs the People They are Trying to Serve

Accessibility Partners’ website cites that more than 75% of their current workforce have disabilities. This company is employing the very people they are trying to serve. No “helicopter help” here. Employing those they are serving helps ensure they are truly meeting the needs of the community in question, because the disabled have a strong voice in the company.

In this way, the needy community becomes part of the solution to the problem. Rather than just being served, they are serving. This empowers the disabled, sends a message to society that the disabled have value, and gives hope to the disabled who think their future is destined to rely on charity and handouts.

Redefining Social Enterprise

The world needs more businesses like Accessibility Partners. Businesses whose existence revolves around providing a sustainable solution to a real problem. Whose profit is made from that same solution. Whose social responsibility is something that cannot be easily taken away, lest the whole company should fall apart. Who create wealth and good jobs. Who employ vulnerable people. Who operate on principles of integrity, justice, innovation, and dignity throughout every facet of their company.

Who use the power of business itself make the world a little less unjust, a little less poor, a little less hungry, a little less marginalized.

That’s the kind of business that can change the world.

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