What do social businesses suggest to the EoC?

In recent years, interest in the topic of “social entrepreneurship” has grown. The 2006 Nobel Peace Prize identified one of its charismatic leaders, Muhammad Yunus (in his last book, Yunus substitutes the term “micro credit” with “social business”).

What do social businesses suggest to the EoC?

By Luca Crivelli

From "Economy of Communion - a new culture" N. 30 - December 2009

crivelliWhile conscious of the difference between the North American and European visions of social entrepreneurship (embodied in particular in the European Research Network, EMES), what is happening on the two shores of the Atlantic cannot but suggest a few interesting paths for reflections, even to us who, on various fronts, are committed to making an economy of communion come to life (in this text, the Latin American experience is explicitly not mentioned, not because it is not significant but because of the author´s little knowledge of the characteristics of this experience there).

In both contexts, the starting point is represented by a shortage of resources, which was shown beginning in the 1980s. In the United States, philanthropic donations were no longer sufficient to guarantee the success of the non-profit sector. In Europe, it was the State-Providence crisis that mostly brought about a reduction in available funds to supply social services.

In both contexts, the answer to this crisis was an appeal to business, seen as a subject capable of generating, through continual productive activity and sales of goods and services on the market, the financial resources necessary to satisfy some needs of the community and its most fragile members.

Both in the United States as in Europe, the first season of these social businesses was strongly marked by the imperative to generate new financial resources. In America, non-profit organizations started real commercial businesses. These were often unlinked to the NGO´s original mission if not to that of producing profits that would serve, in a second phase, towards reaching the goal for which the various organizations started.

In Europe, social businesses, in a phase of development, dealt mainly with integrating disadvantaged workers, and their impact was often measured in a limited way, focusing only on their ability to finance themselves.

It´s good to remember that the EoC, too, arose from a lack of resources. The communion of goods, lived on the individual level, was no longer enough to help the needy members of the Focolare community (some of whom lived in the favelas of Sao Paulo) get out of their situation of need. Chiara suggested this solution in May of 1991, beginning businesses that would put their profits in common.

Still today, in the EoC project, we live a separation between the world of EoC businesses (which deals with producing profits, then donated to the project) and the act of distributing the aid, made possible thanks to the widely diffused presence of the Movement in every part of the world. For a few years now, in order to manage the projects, we´ve made use of the experience in development material from our NGO, Action for a United World (AMU).

The important fact is that both in Europe and the United States, reflection and related praxis of social business went ahead. In particular, people recognized that the initial separation between production of profits and social activity bring two disadvantages: (1) it does not fully take advantage of the quality of entrepreneurs, who have a potential not yet made the most of by social innovation - that is, they have a particular capacity to take on risks and develop innovative solutions to help the needy get out of poverty´s trap; (2) one does not get out of poverty only through donations; work integration and social integration of the person into the community are essential.

Today, American social enterprises strive to value the creativity of their own entrepreneurs, above all in resolving social questions, while European social businesses have evolved strongly from the viewpoint of governance: the most innovative ones favor the participation of various parties (workers, volunteers, users, the local community) in controlling and governing the business, and they try to improve the way they include the more fragile with the same dignity as the others.

These paths cannot but stimulate our reflection on the future of the project. Maybe it is important to find a way to also look after the poor who live around us and are in some way in contact with the communities where our industrial parks or businesses are located. In our hearts, we still have the first ideas that Chiara launched in Brazil when she herself envisioned “a third way for the economy”: the communitarian ownership and start-up of these businesses (“we´re poor but many”); the first way of helping is giving work to the unemployed; our gaze must embrace the crown of thorns, and so the EoC´s work will not be considered completed only when there are no more poor in the Movement, but it remains as an open playing field as long as there is a place in the world where the various forms of need – material, spiritual, relational, of horizons and of meaning – still exist.

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