Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Getting out of a failing social business

Some creative entrepreneurs motivated to improve social ills are beginning to try out creating social businesses. This new hybrid business that has two goals, not only to make a profit and to ease societal problems.

A few prominent social businesses from the States have failed and that is beginning to make investors wary of them. An article in the New York Times cites the examples of World of Good which was bought by e-bay, and the microcredit lender Unitas.

Another problem being discovered is when entrepreneurs decide to end the failing social business. Laws in the US make if difficult to separate the profit and for-profit parts. The laws complicate things for the entrepreneur when they want to end the part giving them the most trouble.

From the New York Times, writer Stephanie Strom writes about the difficulty in getting out of social businesses that are bleeding money.

GlobalGiving is one of the most prominent examples of the hybrid model of social enterprise that married a profit-making business to a nonprofit organization. Such dual-mission companies have sprouted over the last decade as a means of addressing the financing difficulties faced by many nonprofit groups, particularly as they need capital to expand. “It is virtually impossible to grow a social enterprise in any significant way relying wholly on donated money, earned revenue and debt financing, which are the only sources of financing available to nonprofits,” said Allen Bromberger, a lawyer with extensive experience in nonprofit financing. “These hybrid structures allow social enterprises to tap conventional investors interested in making profits while continuing to pursue their social missions.”

But like Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, the animal that had trouble moving because its two heads could not agree on a single direction, the hybrid model for nonprofits is proving problematic. On occasion, the need to generate returns for investors overwhelms the social mission. In other cases, the business falters altogether and cannot support the nonprofit.

Within the last two years, several ventures have split up or been dissolved. For example, World of Good’s commercial unit was bought by eBay, and its nonprofit arm is now struggling to stand on its own. Another prominent hybrid, Pura Vida Coffee, almost collapsed. And some, like GlobalGiving, demonstrate how hard it is to “cash out” of a venture that is not purely commercial. It wound up using foundation grants to prop up its losing profit-making partner.

Mr. Whittle said two things drove their decision to create a hybrid. “We looked at the philanthropy and didn’t think we could raise the capital required to support the technology, and we wanted to impose a brutal bottom-line discipline on what we were doing,” he said.

Investors have increasingly voiced concerns about hybrid groups. “This conjoined structure really has problems,” said Kevin Doyle Jones, a partner at Good Capital, one such investment firm. “Embedded in it is an inherent risk that individuals are profiting from donations that were made for public benefit.”

These entities, he cautioned, should avoid engaging in “private inurement,” or providing excessive benefit to a person who is close to or has a controlling interest in a nonprofit — though tax law says nothing about how much is too much.

Even newer models are evolving. Several states have passed legislation that permits the creation of so-called LC3 companies, which can raise money from traditional capital markets but place social benefit ahead of profit, and B Corporations, which are certified based on their ability to demonstrate that their business produces certain social goods. But Will Rosenzweig, a founder of the specialty tea company Republic of Tea and now the managing director of Physic Ventures, another firm that looks to invest in companies that bring social benefit, expressed skepticism of the new models. “I think you really have to make a choice and be a business or be a nonprofit,” he said. “It’s hard to be both.”

1 comment:

Don Stoll said...

I appreciate the cautionary note you've sounded about social business, since in the last few months I've attended a handful of international development meetings dominated by people who regard social business as the magic bullet that will kill poverty.

However, the hard-headed "This is the way the real world works" pose of such people forces them into some awkward contortions, above all the pretense that advancing social change and making a profit can always go hand in hand. To me this appears symptomatic of a triumphalist market ideology which, in its self-satisfaction as it sweeps everything in front of it, blithely ignores whatever gets swept aside or under the rug.

Though business and profit-making have their place, trumpeting their right to occupy all places overlooks their need to create losers as well as winners. The spreading acceptance of the need to create losers—evident in the United States in recent assaults on the minimum wage—makes an awful lot of the citizens of rich countries anxious. But still less is it an appropriate model for the development of poor countries, in which so many people already teeter on the brink of irrecoverable loss.

Where what you identify as "need to generate returns for investors" swamps the "social mission," social business will duplicate the confluence of growing wealth and growing wealth inequality seen in much of the rich world. And where "business falters altogether and cannot support the nonprofit," the social entrepreneur will extract a useful lesson: next time, don't try quite so hard to support the nonprofit. . .