The for- and non-profit landscapes are merging to create a new class of organization leader. Generally called social entrepreneurs, these individuals leverage for-profit models to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems — endeavors usually undertaken by traditional non-profits.
“One of the reasons that I think there’s a coming together of the for-profit fairly hard-nosed commercial world with this world of social innovation and social purpose is because people’s lives have been bifurcated between those two worlds,” said David Hodgson. Hodgson is managing director of the private equity firm General Atlantic and chairman of the board of Echoing Green — a non-profit with the goal of providing funding and support for emerging social entrepreneurs.
“Because of the way work has changed, because of the number of people who find themselves in families working their tail off all the time,” Hodgson said, “I think there’s been a growing interest in trying to bring your work life together with your social community life.”
But is it possible to do good while making a profit?
“I think that’s such a false dichotomy,” said Sara Horowitz , founder of the non-profit Freelancers Union. “I think that it’s a useful thing to say there are different proponents of each. But, as the sector is maturing, we’re starting to see there are these hybrid organizations that don’t have rates of return that would impress any corporate banker.”
“It’s clearly a continuum,” General Atlantic’s Hodgson said.
Horowitz founded the Freelancers Union, formerly known as Working Today, in 1995. The organization was created to provide independent workers — artists, journalists and temps, among others — with legal assistance and professional support. In 2008, the organization launched a for-profit health-insurance company, the Freelancers Insurance Company, to serve the Union membership, which is now over 170,000. The health-insurance arm has revenues of $96 million.
General Atlantic founded Echoing Green in 1987, five years after Hodgson joined the company. Echoing Green is an independent non-profit for which General Atlantic is considered a corporate supporter and partner.
The company’s staff regularly donate their time to the non-profit, according to Hodgson, bringing their business acumen to the organization and advising fellows on their social entrepreneurial ventures. This allows the non-profit to leverage techniques employed by it’s private equity parent to identify strong fellowship candidates who are awarded with scholarships and mentorship to help them start their own social entrepreneurial venture.
Echoing Green announced its 2012 class of fellows on June 7. Horowitz, a former Echoing Green fellow, said that in meeting the current class she was impressed by the breadth of projects they were working on.
“I think one of the really big differences is you can see how, for people now, it is an option to start a social entrepreneurial venture,” she said. “I think that’s so exciting to see.”
Echoing Green added a Black Male Achievement fellowship program this year. The program was initiated in partnership with George Soros’s Open Society Foundations (OSF). The eight fellows, one a woman, are pursuing projects focused entirely on shrinking and ultimately eliminating the black male achievement gap.
Hodgson said the pros of working with Soros, a prominent left-leaning donor, outweighed the cons. “We thought OSF had such a strong commitment to the area and strong track record of being independent and acting on its philanthropic principles that it made a great partner.”
“Social purpose is our principle criterion,” said Hodgson, adding that when it comes to selecting new fellows, “some of the criteria are straight out of the venture capital handbook.”