Missions Need Money

Jul 25, 2013

Last week The Nation had an interesting and, I would say, revolutionary article about how new types of labor unions are trying to fund themselves.

The unions we're talking about don't represent traditional workers already in the AFL-CIO, instead they organize people who tend to be more spread out, like freelancers, domestic workers or restaurant workers.

Because their members typically don’t pay dues, explains writer Josh Eidelsen, these new labor organizations—which are mostly funded by foundations and grants—are starting to look at various ways of generating money, including the possibility of profit-making enterprises. That’s new.

It caught my attention because for a long time, the prevailing thought in the social sector was that profit-making entities had no place in socially-driven movements.

I’ve been saying this way of thinking needs to evolve, and it’s exciting to see a real discussion developing—in the pages of The Nation, no less.

Shouldn't we be open to all possibilities?

This conversation is bigger than a handful of new labor groups. Any mission-driven organization thinks about how to achieve financial stability.

The time of dividing the world into nonprofit vs. for-profit is over. It’s time for a more nuanced approach.

After all, we have companies committing themselves to social missions in the form of B Corps, like fair-trade coffee importer Sustainable Harvest, and nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations like FirstBook playing a major role in the corporate publishing industry.

The lines are getting blurry, and that’s okay.

Which brings us back to funding of new unions. Take us, for example: When we started, we were supported by foundation money and grants, with the goal of supporting independent workers. At the time, our members’ most pressing concern was affordable health insurance.

We set up Freelancers Insurance Corp. as a for-profit and a B Corp., which means that it operates in keeping with our social mission: Earnings are plowed back into the non-profit Freelancers Union, adding another source of revenue that will help sustain us as we move forward. That’s just one example. There are more ideas out there.

I realize there are pitfalls to inviting for-profit businesses into the social sector. But there's also a detriment in dismissing them out of hand.

Shouldn't we be open to all possibilities, including that a profit-making enterprise could also help sustain a social mission?

Sara Horowitz

As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.