In today’s political climate, it’s easy to assume that our civic systems are broken, and accomplishments—when they are not denigrated or outright dismissed by the “other side”—are few and far between. The reality today is that rather than a divided government taking the initiative, it is citizens—who may or may not share the same political perspectives—who are finding new ways to solve problems together. Government is especially valuable when it supports solutions that are developed locally.
We are proud to be scaling up a solution that has growing support from all segments of society, due to its proven track record and inspiring goal—a reliable, effective pathway that offers everyone who is willing and able to work the chance to do so. Social enterprises are double bottom-line businesses that earn revenue in order to employ people who would not otherwise have that opportunity, providing those employed with a supportive work environment where they build their skills and abilities, increase their incomes, and decrease their reliance on public programs.
REDF has spent almost 20 years providing the financial backing and advisory services to make social enterprises succeed in California, helping them achieve the best results possible so that they can give more people the chance to work and help them achieve greater economic security and mobility with skills to navigate a competitive economy. To date, the social enterprises REDF invests in have earned more than $156 million in revenue and employed over 10,000 men and women who, thanks to this innovative approach, have had the opportunity to work, take care of themselves and their families, and strengthen our economy and society.
Now, inspired by the extraordinary entrepreneurs who are creating and running social enterprises, as well as those who are going to work in the jobs they create, REDF has decided to take our work national to blue states and red states alike—with support from the Social Innovation Fund program as well as our generous Board and other individual donors, foundations, and businesses.
Our goal is ambitious but achievable: 50,000 people who today may be at the very lowest point of their lives will, over the next five years, have a chance to work, learn, build skills, form bonds with their coworkers, and make contributions to their families and communities. Our aspiration: instead of feeling hopeless and marginalized, they will be able to imagine a positive future and experience the sense of inclusion and respect that comes with a job.
We started by soliciting applications from social enterprises across the country for the funding and advisory package we had honed through our work in California. Over 200 applications from 36 states across the U.S. made it clear that ours is a solution with broad appeal that knows no geographical or political limits. Communities of all kinds are supporting the growth of sustainable businesses that provide jobs and hope to those who need it most. And funders of all stripes are joining with us to back the effort—from private “investors,” to national and local foundations, to the federal government’s Social Innovation Fund.
At this time, we have sufficient resources to invest in and advise 22 of the social enterprises that applied — although there are many more that are worthy of support. Over the next five years, we anticipate bringing together this portfolio to learn from one another, hone their approach, and continue to build the evidence base that demonstrates the effectiveness of their contributions. REDF also plans to work with them to create a robust “ecosystem” of supportive businesses, foundations, governments, and nonprofits across the U.S. to dramatically expand partnerships and support so we can create more long-term jobs and opportunity.
Why is this model generating such widespread support? For one, third-party data shows that for every $1,000 spent, we reap $2,230 worth of benefits as people who have been imprisoned or homeless become workers, voters, and taxpayers, involved in a positive way in the lives of their families and communities.
Hard workers who are community-minded, taking the risk to do it differently. Overcoming adversity. Doing it for ourselves. That is the story of this exploding field and of the people employed who have faced formidable challenges—and despite that, are now going to work. Their energy and progress will, I believe, offer an example that will help refuel the optimism required for our country to join together and solve, rather than argue about, our most urgent problems.