I am continuing my research on interest convergence as a reason why the social enterprise movement has been successful (or at least recently gained momentum). This time I am looking at interest convergence from an ideological standpoint. Another brilliant aspect of social enterprise is that its goals do not fall neatly into conservative or liberal ideology. Consider, for example, (i) that the benefit corporation statutes adopted in twelve states and the District of Columbia generally have been passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support, (2) social enterprises have been founded by conservative and liberal entrepreneurs alike, and (3) social enterprise missions are often couched in both conservative and liberal language (e.g., typically-conservative anti-government, anti-poverty language of “self-sufficiency” but also typically-liberal language of “doing good” and “giving back”.) Although the benefit corporation is not synonymous with social enterprise, it can be taken as a proxy—and the benefit corporation concept has widespread bipartisan appeal. The ends are attractive to liberals; conservatives like the means. Generically, liberals want the problems to be solved; conservatives want the problems solved without government and with some modicum of self-sufficiency and sustainability.

This leads me to ponder if social and environmental impact measurements also incorporate the normative values of both conservatives and liberals. Certainly, some of the typical slogans are similar. Is “Made in America” (which often makes me wary) the same as “Buy Local” (which sounds so much more pleasant and quaint)? When we talk about sustainability, what definitions of community are being employed? Is it the local community, national community, or global community? Are we talking about “us vs. them” (where “them” typically denotes Chinese laborers who are “stealing” American jobs)? Similarly, on an academic panel on social enterprise last fall, I asked a representative from an organization that sets social and environmental impact measurement standards whether or not Chick-fil-A, the infamous, privately-held fast food restaurant which claims to pay competitive wages, provides employee health and retirement benefits, prizes its environmental stewardship (which includes recycling, energy and water conservation, a sustainable supply chain, and a LEED-certified “test” restaurant) but contributes a portion of its profits to a family foundation that funds anti-same-sex marriage initiatives, can be considered a social enterprise. The response was “no.”

I have never been one to defend a company like Chick-fil-a (ever). And I am in no way defending Chick-fil-a right now (really, please take me at my word). But I am still puzzling about the distinguishing feature of social enterprise – what is the core of social enterprise? In my most recent article, I present various business models of social enterprise, including a philanthropy-based business model through which companies donate profits to foundations to do good (like TOMS Shoes or any other Buy-One-Give-One business, which I generally am not a fan of). What Chick-fil-a donates to its conservative, anti-gay family foundation may fit into this philanthropy-based business model. Perhaps what a company does with its profits (i.e., revenue minus cost) is just philanthropy, comparative to a shareholder who has received dividends off the profits of a company and then goes and donates to Goodwill. But the things that Chick-fil-a does with its core business—the employee benefits, the environmental stewardship, etc.—maybe that is a truer measure or defining characteristic of a social enterprise.

Stay with me here. Let’s forget that Chick-fil-A funds a conservative, anti-gay family foundation. Some might say that such donations are not the core of Chick-fil-A’s chicken-selling business. Instead, let’s think about Chick-fil-A’s closure on Sundays. That is, it is Chick-fil-A’s corporate policy to close on Sunday and this is for religious reasons. According to the owners, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest. This policy can probably go in the category of “conservative values.” Nonetheless, the policy may align with liberal sympathies for employees—employees shouldn’t be overworked and should be given time off to spend with their families. For example, there is always liberal outcry against Walmart and other big box stores that stay open on Thanksgiving or Christmas day. My question is—is Chick-fil-A’s policy of closing on Sundays a “plus” on the social and environmental measurements scale? Does it matter that the policy is in place for religious reasons? What are the normative values incorporated into social and environmental measurements? Do they have room for conservative values? Or do they have room for conservative values only to the extent that the end result of those values converge with liberal sympathies?

(Note: I have to thank Haskell Murray for initiating some of this conversation over at The Conglomerate blog in August:


Comments (1)

  1. Haskell Murray

    February 18, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Interesting Post, Alicia. I am looking forward to the paper. This shows how difficult it is to define “social enterprise.” Who decides what benefits society?

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