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Good for business, business for good

For profit or nonprofit? Self-interest or altruism? Charity or solidarity? If I told you I had a plan to make my living by starting a business selling lamps to villagers in Africa who currently use kerosene for light, would you think I was profiting off the poor? What if I told you that the lamps would be better than kerosene for the environment, and cheaper and safer for the people who use them? Somewhere in between businesses and nonprofit organizations is an interesting and growing model, often called “social entrepreneurship.” This sector can be confusing to the public imagination. We’re frustrated when nonprofits seem to be inefficient at accomplishing their missions, but we doubt that a business will really accomplish anything but maximizing profit. But there’s kind of an amazing baking-soda-and-vinegar-volcano effect when the goal of social good aligns with the raw power of markets and capitalism. For example, those solar-powered lamps in the NYT article will only get cheaper and more available to rural communities as the company is able to scale up its small successes. Chicago-based Beeline / Sweet Beginnings is an example that's closer to home - and close to my heart with all that bee talk. beeline_3_honey_jars.JPG There’s some interesting meta-organizations like B-Corporation and Social Venture Network that can help you get a better idea of how these groups work and how we, the consumers and the judges, might evaluate them. You can check out some more real-world examples via the videos on the NewsHour’s Social Entrepreneurs series (and, yes, we’re one of them). The idea of “the power of the market” feels especially strong when you think about freelancers, who, as a third of America’s workforce, have the numbers to become a real collective force. Already we’re able to do things like start a group health insurance plan and a group 401(k). Imagine the possibilities as our community grows.