polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Developing an Ecosystem for Social Enterprise

by Melanie Friedrichs

Cities around the world are struggling with unemployment, troubled school systems, violence and environmental degradation. Government welfare programs and traditional charitable organizations have been throwing money at the same problems for years. Business initiatives and private sector growth help the few, but leave the many exposed to the perils of the free market. How can cities create sustainable, equitable growth?

Students of the Afghan Institute of Learning, a social enterprise that provides education and health services to over 350,000 women and children each year. Source: Ashoka

Social enterprise is a compelling answer. Unite market and mission with organizations that work to address social, environmental and economic problems through earned-income strategies. Target root causes and seek structural change through innovative solutions to old problems. The dream of social enterprise has captured hearts in many fields, appearing in books like "How to Change the World," by David Bornstein, and features like "Faces of Social Entrepreneurship" in the New York Times Magazine.

But wait, there's a catch: starting a successful social enterprise isn't easy. Funding is especially challenging because such ventures don't qualify for grants from many charitable foundations or offer the profit potential sought by investors. They also don't quite fit within current legal systems. While best practices for starting a business or non-profit have been tested for years, experience-based advice for mixed models is rare. Infrastructure for meeting the needs of social entrepreneurs is still in formation.

Social enterprise ecosystem builders. Source: Melanie Friedrichs

Social enterprises need a fertile "ecosystem" to grow, including:
  • capital: innovative funding mechanisms
  • advocacy: initiatives to raise awareness
  • incubation: tailored mentorship and training
  • network: opportunities to collaborate and scale
  • education: support for young social entrepreneurs
This takes concerted effort and collaboration from a wide range of players, but success can turn the dream of social enterprise into a powerful driver of economic development.

The 2012 SEEED Summit. Source: Brown Daily Herald

The Social Enterprise Ecosystems for Economic Development (SEEED) Summit is a national conference that brings social entrepreneurs together with related actors to share experience and ideas. SEEED aims to build a national ecosystem and support local ecosystems, encouraging students, academics, professionals and anyone interested in learning more to attend.

Last year, the first SEEED Summit featured talks by Diana Wells, president of Ashoka, Michael Brown, co-founder and CEO of City Year, and Christopher Gergen, president of Bull City Forward. This year we'll hear from Ira Magaziner, president of the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Carla Javits, president of the Roberts Enterprise Development Fund (REDF), and many other exciting participants.

The 2013 SEEED Summit takes place on April 26-27 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Details and registration are available at seeed.org.

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