January 10, 2019
For all the negative and pessimistic news out there, there is a lot of good being done in the world which can serve as a source of hope. One sector which is on the rise and working to create solutions to many of our world’s greatest challenges is that of social enterprises.
Social enterprises are organizations that produce a good or service that effects positive change on a social issue. They have existed for nearly a century, and they have grown substantially in number over the last decade. In the United States, it is now estimated that this sector employs over 10 million people, with revenues of $500 billion. And it is responsible for about 3.5 percent of total U.S. GDP.
Here in the United States, one great example of a social enterprise is Grameen America. The organization is dedicated to helping entrepreneurial women who live in poverty build businesses to enable financial mobility. Grameen America was founded by Muhammad Yuns, who is known as the “father of microfinance.” He was notably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for founding the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Grameen America has taken this award-winning model and modified it for women who live below the federal poverty line. The group provides microloans, financial training, and support to their members. Participants open free savings accounts with commercial banks and learn financial literacy. The organization has already given out 400,000 loans which amount to over $1 billion with a 99% repayment rate.
Although much more the norm in the U.S. and European countries, social enterprise is still relatively embryonic in countries like Canada. But Canadian Finance Minister Bill Morneau has recently leveled the playing field. Canada has now pledged $755 million in support of social finance and social enterprises, allowing Canada to quickly emerge as a global leader in this space. The intention is to support the sector through a period of growth and enable stability which would then allow the government to step away after a decade of support.
One such collaborative social enterprise group that has paved the way forward in Canada is the WE Charity and ME to WE Social Enterprise, a group I became familiar with over a decade ago. The Toronto-based organization, which has over 1,000 employees internationally, is a remarkable Canadian and now global success story. It has partnered with developing communities in nine countries, including Kenya, Haiti, India, and Ecuador, to co-create sustainable solutions to poverty. That includes providing access to clean water, healthcare, and sanitation for 1 million people, and empowering about 30,000 women with the tools to become economically self-sufficient.
The WE Movement’s social enterprise, called ME to WE, sells sustainable products, then donates a minimum of 50 percent of its profits to the organization’s charitable arm. From 2014 to 2017, the organization donated, on average, a remarkable 85 percent of its profits to WE Charity, bringing the total to over $20 million in cash and in-kind. Any outstanding balance is reinvested to grow ME to WE’s social mission, which includes launching fair trade chocolate in South America, and growing its artisans program, which provides sustainable income to the Kenyan women who handmake jewelry that ME to WE sell.
In addition to many notable celebrities and global influencers supporting WE, the organization’s social impact, supply chain, and other business elements have been endorsed by multiple groups and third party organizations, including Mission Measurement, The B Labs, and The Fairtrade Foundation, and has received applause from key individuals in the country, such as a former Canadian prime minister, and a retired Canadian Supreme Court justice.
There are many great challenges we face in our world today. We should continue to cultivate and invest in social enterprises. These organizations are helping to be a part of the solutions our world needs to make a sustainable social impact. Social enterprises will continue to lead in making our world a better place to live by helping to solve some of our most complex problems.
Scott McCallum is the former president and CEO of Aidmatrix Foundation, Inc., a global nonprofit technology firm that specialized in humanitarian relief efforts. He served as the 43rd governor of Wisconsin from 2001 to 2003.