Kevin Lynch sums up the mission of the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) with just a few words. “We’re the champion for social enterprise,” says Lynch, who is SEA’s president and CEO.
SEA, a membership organization, supports and promotes social enterprises. Its members’ missions and business models vary – some provide social services, others manufacture sustainable products, for example – but they all create social value using a business model.
A home for social enterprises
“We really believe that social enterprise is one of, if not the most, high-leverage vehicles for creating positive social change,” explains Lynch. “We’ve got this world with a lot of seemingly insurmountable social and environmental and human problems. Social enterprise is a tremendous tool for addressing those.”
“Our work as an organization is to measurably impact those problems by supporting the work of great social enterprises,” continues Lynch. Accordingly, SEA spreads knowledge and strengthens capacity by providing tools and information to social enterprises through its website and newsletter, webinars and more. SEA also builds communities and networks, both online and face-to-face, linking people locally through 13 chapters in 11 states. As well, SEA tells the stories and aggregates the impact of social enterprises, and advocates for supportive public policy.
A re-energized organization
SEA has been around since 1997, but it has gone through big changes in the last 18 months, growing from a Washington D.C.-based virtual organization to a “small but mighty” four-person team located in Minnesota. The team includes one staff person responsible for member benefits, another focused on customer service, and a third supporting SEA’s volunteer-run chapters, as well as Lynch, who joined as CEO in mid-2011. SEA has also revitalized its strategic plan and introduced an expanded suite of member benefits.
The priority SEA puts on serving social enterprises has led to a growing membership. “We just crossed the thousand member mark a few weeks ago,” says Lynch. “That’s about a 50 per cent increase in the last year, so we’re really excited about that. And we’re already knocking on the door of 1100.”
SEA is open to individuals and organizations, reaching potential members through its web presence and social media, its chapters and annual summits, and its U.S. and Canadian partners. This year, SEA is running three regional conferences: a Western Summit in Los Angeles September 13-14, a Mid-Atlantic Summit in Baltimore September 24, and a Southeastern Summit in Tampa Bay October 29-30.
Lynch sees great opportunity for social enterprises to fill the gap between government, nonprofit and business sectors. “Social enterprise is stepping into that void and creating solutions in a sustainable, financially responsible way,” he says. The challenges are to measure and demonstrate outcomes and show how the financial model leverages results. “A lot of the conversation in social enterprise these days is about finding the appropriate corporate form that optimizes the success of social enterprise and can attract investment capital,” adds Lynch.
A personal commitment
Lynch’s own story is as compelling as SEA’s. “I started out my career in the advertising business, many moons ago. I had no social purpose whatsoever in what I considered my work to be, and so it was pretty much about fame and fortune and ego, really,” he reflects. “In the mid-90s, I had a pretty significant spiritual reawakening, I guess I would call it, which led to a social reawakening, which led me to have to try to do something a little bit more significant in my work. I actually owned an ad agency at the time; it was all I knew how to do, so I had to try to figure out how to do something more meaningful within that business model, and I refocused my ad agency towards a social purpose.”
In 2003, Lynch took on the running of Rebuild Resources, a social enterprise that operates manufacturing businesses employing recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. “I found that to be terribly fascinating and terribly gratifying work, to see really specific and direct human results in the people that were turning their lives around, and social results in terms of the number of people that were coming out of the prison system and not going back in, finding full-time sustainable employment and thereby creating benefits of social responsibility and public safety.” The experience led Lynch and Julius Walls Jr., then of Greyston Bakery, to write Mission Inc.: The practitioner’s guide to social enterprise, published in 2009. Lynch joined SEA’s board in 2008, then became CEO in 2011.
Although he’s building an organization, Lynch remains focused on the social enterprises at its heart. “We don’t delude ourselves into thinking that the work in the trenches of creating social change is done by an organization like ours. We definitely believe that it’s done by amazing social enterprises, and so our goal is to create the change by supporting their work, and creating an environment and an ecosystem in which they can do their work better,” says Lynch. “Whatever the mission focus of any particular social enterprise is, if we’re doing that work well, then that social enterprise will do its work better and accomplish its mission more fully and the world will be a better place.”
More information is available on SEA’s website at https://www.se-alliance.org/.
Denise Deby is a freelance writer and program management and evaluation consultant who specializes in social, environmental and international issues. You can find her at denisedeby.wordpress.com.