Building an Economy on Love

Kevin Lynch, President and CEO of the Social Enterprise Alliance, has lifetime of experience working in the social enterprise space. From 2003 until mid-2011, he served as President of Rebuild Resources, Inc., a nationally recognized non-profit social enterprise in St. Paul, Minnesota that exclusively employs recovering ex-offenders. Lynch worked from 1980 to 2001 in the advertising industry, the last 14 years as founder and principal of Lynch Jarvis Jones, a social enterprise ad agency whose mission was to create positive social change through the power of advertising and marketing. With a mastery of words, he encourages us to consider our work not simply purpose driven, but a labor of love.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post Blog.

From my modest perch as CEO of the Social Enterprise Alliance, I am blessed every day to witness the work of amazing social entrepreneurs who are building business models that harness the power of markets to take on our most vexing and intractable social and environmental problems.

For a long time after taking this job, I searched for the words to describe the work of our field. Last year, in the run-up to our national conference, I thought we had found them: Building An Economy On Purpose. This seemed the perfect construct for squarely differentiating the “Social Enterprise Economy” from the “Greed Economy.”

We’re living today with the fallout from an economy that is built, not on enlightened self interest as proposed by Adam Smith, but on fanatical greed, as condemned by Smith, but widely practiced today. In an economy built on greed, every business decision that is made is made towards the goal of maximizing for ownership, which requires that real costs be off-loaded from the business wherever possible.

If we solve entirely for ownership, rather than, let’s say, for the environment, how does it affect how we extract and consume raw material, how we dispose of waste, how we use energy? If we solve for ownership, but not for workers and families, what does it mean for wages, benefits, and working conditions? If we place ownership above community, what happens to transparency, governance and business ethics?

Our idea of Building An Economy On Purpose certainly seemed like a wonderful way of describing the alternative. It’s a concept that squarely celebrates the power of the economy and the potency of business. But instead of solving entirely for ownership, it demonstrates that a business can exist for a different reason. In the social enterprise economy you’ll find organizations like REDF, that invests in businesses whose purpose is to create employment for people facing barriers; or Benetech, a Silicon Valley tech company working on human rights, global literacy and environmental issues; or Network For Good, that is dedicated to unleashing human generosity. Or hundreds of others I’m lucky to hang out with.

To say nothing of the fact that Building An Economy On Purpose also gave us a great platform for organizing our work around a set of key initiatives that we termed the Building Blocks of the purpose-driven economy.

But a funny thing happened as we were promoting the idea of Building An Economy On Purpose. Someone pointed out to me that purpose is the What, but not the Why. And to create any powerful social movement, you can’t just have a What.

There has to be a Why.

I realized that purpose alone is not enough. It’s all about the love. That’s the Why. We need to be Building An Economy On Love.

Why Love, rather than Purpose? Because only Love can trump Greed.

What’s more, purpose can change. Love endures. Purpose can be debated. Love is universal. Purpose can burn you out. Love energizes.

Perhaps most importantly, Purpose has the potential to become simply another form of an end that justifies a mean. I am sadly aware, and definitely not proud, that I have often become so enamored of my own “noble purpose” that I’ve lost sight of how I should treat people or deliver on my commitments. Surely I’m not alone.

What would happen if we ran the economy as if we actually loved each other, and our planet, and the species therein? It makes me shudder to think.

Now add a final and perhaps counterintuitive piece. What if we operated as though we actually, fully, healthily loved ourselves? Not in the self-obsessed, zero-sum way that leads to nothing but greed, but in the “I am a blessed child of the universe” sense that lies deep in our often troubled hearts.

That’s huge ask, and certainly not one to which I’ve ever succeeded at responding. But I’m not going to stop trying!


Banner courtesy of Jim McCluskey

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