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Finding business solutions to social problems: Jesuit initiatives in social enterprise

30 September 2014
Young adults in indigenous communities explore coffee production in upland northern Mindanao, Philippines, and requiring technical and marketing assistance. Photo credits: ESSC

Young adults in indigenous communities explore coffee production in upland northern Mindanao, Philippines, and requiring technical and marketing assistance.
Photo credit: ESSC

Mariel de Jesus

Today’s problems need different strategies and Jesuits must apply new skills and techniques in order to respond more effectively. Beyond simply business skill however, there is a need for greater imagination to solve the challenges of today. In the same way business as usual needs to change, social ministries and apostolates must also go beyond the usual.

For example, buying coffee might be about taste, price, and quality. But increasingly, our purchases might also consider giving a decent wage to the communities who grow the coffee or even the social investments the coffee company makes.

But it’s not just coffee. More and more, the decisions we make about the products we buy and use – soap, cosmetics, clothes, bags – are influenced by their social value. This is an example of social enterprise at work recently taken up during the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (JCAP) Social Apostolate Meeting held in the Philippines from 18 to 21 August 2014.

According to the Global Social Benefit Institute at Santa Clara University, social entrepreneurship “utilizes innovative business skills and technologies to address the needs of those living in poverty.” Instead of focusing solely on the profit motive, social entrepreneurs put their skills to use in pursuing solutions to pressing social problems. Often, they work directly with communities in need, finding ways to provide services that most of us take for granted such as clean water, electricity, health care, education and financial services.

Some Jesuit institutions are exploring social enterprise as a way to respond to the needs of the people they serve. Service and accompanying communities have long been components of the Jesuit Social Apostolate mission. Given the challenges of today’s world, social entrepreneurship is considered a new element of the Jesuit mission. Some Jesuit organizations are already exploring how best they can utilize the principles of social entrepreneurship to help others.

In Indonesia, Credit Union Microfinance Innovation (CUMI) Pelita Sejahtera is a credit union focused on providing access to financial services for the poor. The organization provides opportunities for micro-entrepreneurs to save money, access to loans at low interest rates, insurance and protection benefits, as well as education and entrepreneurship training.

A similar program in Cambodia is implemented through the Poor Farmers Solidarity Association that provides revolving grants to members for livestock, rice, immediate assistance, and other special projects.

In Australia, Jesuit Social Services is trying to address situations of “entrenched disadvantage,” particularly to support youth who are unable to enter the labor market. Their Ignite Cafes are not-for-profit social enterprises that provide support and education and training in order secure employment for disadvantaged and vulnerable young people.

Fr. Xavier Alpasa of Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan  and a TED Fellow, says social entrepreneurship is the “third sector,” a hybrid of business, community, and the private sector. Although on the surface, a social enterprise might look very much like a traditional business, there are a number of important differences. A traditional business focuses on accumulation of profits while a social enterprise seeks to distribute the benefits. Business as usual is primarily a profit-oriented activity. Social enterprises evaluate their performance on the triple-bottom line, which means not only how they make a profit, but also how they benefit the environment and society.

Local abaca enterprises can be viable livelihood options for upland communities but need various levels of support. Photo credits: ESSC

Local abaca enterprises can be viable livelihood options for upland communities but need various levels of support.
Photo credit: ESSC

Social enterprises are growing quickly, with more and more people seeking ways to create products with greater value than just what’s on the price tag. But there is still much room for growth.

Because the social mission is central to the social enterprise, success cannot be measured in the same way as a regular business enterprise. Where a traditional business would judge its success on the basis of number of sales, a social enterprise must be able to show its impact on social problems. Do more people have clean water to drink? Are farmers receiving a fair wage? Do families have access to affordable healthcare? And because these are complex problems, measuring impact is not always so easy.

For Jesuit organizations just starting out in social enterprises, there are many challenges. Jesuit Provinces exploring social enterprise must ask whether its efforts are replicable and whether a successful enterprise can be scaled up to serve more people. Although business may not come naturally to the Jesuits, they and their partners and collaborators need to capture current passions and ride on the wave of interest and energy that is driving social enterprise today.

Mariel de Jesus and Iris Legal, both from the Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research organization in the Philippines, joined the JCAP Social Apostolate meeting. This article is based on discussions and presentations during the meeting with the theme “Doing Good to Doing More Through Social Entrepreneurship.”

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