From Egypt to the US: Governments, Hope, and Jobs

Hope and optimism can be crushed or facilitated by government as the events of the past week in Egypt and Tunisia make clear.  When people don’t feel their voices are heard, and they can’t get jobs, they rebel.

The other week, during the State of the Union speech, the President focused on how to create jobs in the US context, suggesting direct investments in business development, research and infrastructure.  This was followed with a White House event to announce “StartUp America” – an effort led by Steve Case and the Kauffman Foundation to spur innovation and business creation.  Fortune’s business blogger Dan Primack in a January 31 post responded with what he called “cynical optimism”.  But when I heard that the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) had been invited to attend, and had a chance to suggest that these investments also be made in social enterprises that create jobs for the most disadvantaged – I tilted from cynic to optimist.

While there’s plenty of debate about how much government can do to stimulate job creation, a  recent paper from the Harvard Business School and Pacific Community Ventures goes so far as to state that, “There is no market from which government is completely absent…”.  Think  government investments that created the worldwide web, and the nation’s web of highways for just two examples.

I heard an earful about these issues myself this last week traveling to Los Angeles and Sacramento where I met with business, government, and nonprofits about REDF’s effort  to create jobs for young people not in school or at work, and people exiting homelessness or incarceration; and a model that can be sustained and scale.   It’s the government’s Social Innovation Fund, along with private philanthropy that support our work – and it’s this kind of combination that does seem to work best.

In the Southland I was greeted warmly by the Board of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation – leaders of both business and government  when I had the chance to let them know about REDF’s plans to expand in California.  I met with self-described conservatives who run businesses and advocate for them who fully embraced our ideas about helping nonprofits create jobs for people otherwise shut out of the workforce – and eagerly sought to help.  I met people in government who wanted to connect the dots between community colleges and the people REDF’s enterprises employ; and between procurement and job creation.

My take after working in all 3 sectors over the past 3 decades is that practical people in business and government who care about their communities knows that it takes all sectors to create value for our families, neighbors, and colleagues.

It’s disappointing when public agencies mostly talk about how much they’re spending rather than about results; or offer little analysis of expenditures as compared to benefits.  It’s disappointing when government spends too little time talking to business and philanthropy to find out how to use public investment and regulation to create the most public good.

And it is disappointing that businesses often ignore the social conditions they may exacerbate.  Too often neither their balance sheets nor their lobbying efforts take into account the costs that communities may bear for the decisions they make.  Their private philanthropy may help the community, but they might be able to do more through their core business if motivated to do so.

So when we have huge budget debates, there is little reliable data or information to go on in figuring out what’s worth cutting and what’s not; what tax incentives or regulations should be preserved and which ones eliminated.

Some businesses and some government agencies are starting to show signs of progress.  The whole point of the Social Innovation Fund is to create more evidence about what works, and facilitate replication and scale when warranted..

As the public continues to debate the roles of business and government in job creation, REDF will work with SEA and others to demonstrate that nonprofits also play a vital role in innovation and job creation, while generating data on costs and results that informs, and we hope influences business and government action.

Stay tuned right here – February 15 we’ll announce our new portfolio and the partnerships they have forged between business and government to create jobs!