Identity can take the form of a line of branded products, fidelity to a model so strong that each site is internally audited, or a daily practice of gathering as a community to share stories and provide motivation to all participants. No matter its form, identity is what makes each organization successful in its own right. A rock-solid alignment of mission and margin influences every decision made by the boards and staff of social enterprises and is the foundation of each organization’s footing in its community and the field. Identity is usually exemplified in one of three key areas:
- Cultural identity. An internal value system that all staff and participants share, espouse, and can easily communicate to those interested in learning more.
- Brand identity. Infusing products and services with mission, thereby enabling customers to connect authentically with an organization’s purpose through the act of consumption.
- Operational identity. The consistency and quality in implementation needed to support business model efficiency, replication, and high performance.
Approaches to Identity
Identity is an organization’s clear and compelling purpose and its realization internally as a set of aligned strategic, operational, and cultural practices, and externally, in exceptional communications and branding. The diversity of each organization’s individual approach is described below.
Cultural identity is the foundation for many of the social enterprises featured in Impact to Last. Some organizations are so focused and dependent on culture there is no way to talk about the business without it. Human Technologies Corporation (HT) in Utica and The Cara Program (TCP) in Chicago are two such organizations. And even those social enterprises that do not highlight their internal culture are steeped in behaviors and practices that come from a core belief in the mission and work of the business.
At HT in New York State, what they refer to as an “affirmative business” culture is pervasive. HT sees itself as a catalyst for transforming the disability system so individuals with barriers to employment have the opportunity to work and achieve their fullest potential.
This was not always the case. In 2004 the organization was siloed, with HT staff and program participants having separate holiday parties and being paid differently, with disabled employees receiving below-minimum wages commensurate with their abilities, as permitted by federal labor laws. When Rick Sebastian was hired as CEO in 2004, he implemented efforts to break down the silos and give workers with disabilities all the rights, benefits, and risks of being an employee. This remains the single greatest transformation for HT, and created the basic belief system and culture that is the touchstone for every decision made at HT today.
Life and career skills development is the backbone of The Cara Program. Every day begins with “Motivations”—a practice of gathering as a community (staff and students) to share experiences, educate one another, and draw people out of their comfort zones. Key stakeholders like customers and funders who have observed and participated in Motivations emphasize how moving it is, which exemplifies TCP’s focus on personal transformation. All who have attended Motivations say that attending even once has made them loyal to TCP because seeing the values and commitment of students is indelible.
The culture at Greyston Bakery is grounded in the Greyston Mandala—a philosophy that approaches people and their needs from a holistic perspective, which is why Greyston provides employment along with affordable housing, childcare, and workforce programs through the Greyston Foundation. Two tenets are central to Greyston Mandala and the bakery’s mission and philosophy:
- Open Hiring. Open hiring is a policy whereby anyone who wants a job is eligible with no application, background check, or interview required. It is designed to give people with a range of employment barriers—having a criminal or drug history and lacking work experience or education—a foothold in the workforce. The company keeps a list of people who are interested in employment, and hires them on a first-come, firstserved basis.
- PathMaking is based on the Buddhist philosophy that everyone is on his or her own unique path in life. The Director of PathMaking works with Greyston employees to help them accomplish their personal and professional goals, which can involve accessing supportive services, resolving workplace conflicts, stress reduction, job searching, investigating education and training opportunities, and dealing with dependent or eldercare issues. This dedicated role works with employees individually and in groups, and assesses the extent to which Greyston is meeting the needs of the broader community and fulfilling its mission.
For over thirty years, Greyston has stayed true to these core values and practices while delivering high-quality products at a competitive price. The company’s social mission has given it leverage to build relationships with other values-led corporations—including Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever, and Whole Foods—that have propelled Greyston’s growth to its current size.
When the core business of a social enterprise is dependent on a product, brand identity is essential to success. This is the case if the business is a service and the brand is communicated by the individuals working on a contract—whether they are providing building maintenance, road cleaning, or warehousing and assembly. Workers interact with customers and each can tell a story. It is also the case if a product is shipped nationally or internationally. The product must stand on its own, conveying the story of the enterprise, and encourage consumers to purchase it again.
CEO of the Women’s Bean Project (WBP) Tamra Ryan arrived from the marketing industry with some bias toward the influence of branding in an organization. In 2003 Ryan changed the logo from a pot of soup to a sprouting bean, which stands for growth, prosperity, and change. The new logo—and the internal culture shift that occurred with the transformation —allowed WBP to expand into a wide range of product areas. According to Ryan, branding is critical because WBP puts “a tangible product in people’s hands all over and we must take that opportunity to enter into their consciousness.”
A part of Walmart.com’s Empowering Women Together initiative since 2013, WBP was featured as Walmart’s North American model in an Oxford University case study about the initiative. Walmart.com buyer Andrea Rockers Wright highlighted the importance of the WBP Brand: “As a merchant, I am looking at everyone’s brand. Not just for what it means to me as a merchant, but what it means to my customers. Women’s Bean Project has a really great brand, a really great story, and a really great product. When you put them all together it’s a win-win.”
Operational identity is the consistency and quality in implementation needed to support business model efficiency, replication, and high performance. Operational identity is essential as social enterprises grow and scale. The successful enterprises featured in Impact to Last are constantly working to serve more customers, serve their current population more efficiently, or become less dependent on outside money and influence. Robust systems of data collection and rigorous program management are a critical but not sufficient precondition for achieving scale. Without robust systems, enterprises scramble to deliver the work to which they are committed.
With strong business disciplines in place, expansion (while never easy) can be fairly seamless. CEO has expanded from one site in 2004 to 12 sites in three states in 2015, and has a track record of identifying and taking advantage of discrete opportunities. CEO has taken advantage of Federal ARRA and Social Innovation Fund initiatives and a Pay For Success program in New York State in order to facilitate rapid growth. These funds provided a foundation for CEO to leverage additional investment, including private funding, earned revenue, and government investment.
There have been challenges along the way. CEO opened a site through an affiliate in one location, only to realize the partner could not adhere to the CEO model. CEO made the decision to bring management back in-house and now operates the site directly, as it does all others. Fidelity to the social enterprise model is the backbone of CEO.
While Bank of America’s Support Services Division began in 1990 as a discrete project of the CEO at MBNA, it was not until Bank of America purchased MBNA that the division really took off. At that point Support Services management made a decision to treat Support Services like any other line of business within the bank and began to “hire for the work”—the very distinctive skills inherent in Support Services—rather than finding odd jobs as a reason to hire.
Support Services is proud of its record of accuracy, efficiency, and systems improvement. Every customer reports higher accuracy rates than other service providers and, as Support Services’ customer in the Mortgage Division, Cheryl Moncure, explains: “Support Services Division keeps securing more and more work based on confidence and the results we are seeing.”
Identity is not a one size fits all solution. It takes years for a social enterprise to solidify its identity, and in an ever-changing market, there will always be a need for constant reassessments and adjustments. The process of creating an identity and culture—both internally and externally—has been a journey for each of the 10 social enterprises profiled in this report. And while the path is unique to each organization, there are two important findings from the Impact to Last research:
First, identity must reflect real strengths and values. In order to be authentic (authenticity being among the critical maxims in branding, particularly for social enterprises) identity must be grounded first in the reality of an organization’s mission, goals, and business strategies; and second, in the recognition that half the battle is the ease with which these characteristics can be communicated. Not all social enterprises need their brand to stand out on the shelf of a grocery store or in an online marketplace. Some are dependent on a culture that supports the growth and success of students and employees, and some are strong and efficient precisely because they resemble other lines of business in the same company. Identity is created through analysis of an organization’s real purpose and approach and the desire to share this story with the outside world.
Second, a social enterprise cannot succeed without an across-the-board belief in its identity. Staff must understand the mission and the business operations and be willing to tackle the tough issues when the two conflict. Boards are an integral part of the effort to achieve operational and strategic alignment and attract new customers. External partners and investors/funders should be cultivated as active surrogates through identity. If the board and staff believe wholeheartedly in the identity of the social enterprise, that enthusiasm will provide the fuel for growth.