The first 5 years of my career were spent working for an international non-profit, operating very much from the traditional charity mindset. The organization raised funds from wealthy Americans to run child-focused programs, such as schools and orphanages, in poor countries around the world. The needs we met were stark, and the work was rewarding. As I gained more experience in this field, however, I began to realize the limitations of the work we were doing. We were addressing symptoms of enormous problems, rather than the causes of those problems. Also, the reality was that there simply was not enough donor money to build and run schools for every uneducated child in the world. Assessing these frustrations led me to ask some serious questions. Is there another way beyond the age-old charity model for addressing issues of poverty and injustice? How can I be a part of promoting solutions which had the ability to scale at such a level that the structures of oppression and poverty would be shaken at their core? Finally, is there a way to grow impact without spending all my time seeking more donor dollars?
The search for the answers to these questions led me to Social Enterprise. Lack of economic opportunity is a primary cause of many social issues, therefore, market-based solutions with a clear focus on specific societal problems work from the inside-out in positively impacting these issues. Additionally, while charity dollars are always limited, consumer dollars have create infinite possibilities for growth and scale.
This is not to say that the charity-model is unnecessary, at ASSETS Lancaster, we use donor dollars to subsidize a majority of our educational and lending programs because they would otherwise be too expensive for our target market to access. However, we do strongly believe in creating space for Social Enterprise as a “3rd way” to operate, outside of traditional for-profit/non-profit structures. Our involvement in social enterprise is meant to catalyze excitement and innovation around business ideas which help address some of the stark social and economic problems present in our community. That makes me very excited indeed.