What a long strange trip it’s been: How the Social Venture Network changed business in America

Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s renown, is asking me for money, and he’s not selling ice cream. I give him a dollar bill, he stamps it in red ink — NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS — and returns it to me. It’s part of his new crusade to get corporate money out of politics.

“Corporations are not people, and money is not free speech,” Cohen declares.

The 61-year-old ice-cream mogul sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 2000.  (He’s on the left, without his trademark beard, next to his longtime pal Jerry Greenfield.) The T-shirt says: “Stamp Money Out of Politics.” These days,  as “Head Stamper” at StampStampede, Cohen is working for an amendment to the US Constitution to get money out of politics.

It sounds improbable but no more improbable than this: That a gathering of about 70 people, including Ben and his partner Jerry Greenfield, at the rustic Gold Lake Mountain Resort not far from Boulder, Colorado, Colorado back in 1987 could spawn a movement that has changed the way millions of Americans think about and do business. The Gold Lake get-together led to the creation of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of business people, investors and philanthropists, many of them shaped by the political and cultural movements of the 1960s, who believe that business can change the world for the better. About 700 SVN members, friends and family gathered last week in New York for a 25th anniversary dinner and celebration–a time to assess how far their movement to remake business has come, and how far it needs to go.

The dinner was a star-studded affair, at least for those of us who pay attention to businesses that aim to build a more just and sustainable economy. On hand along with Ben and Jerry were Eileen Fisher of the eponymous clothing company, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Organic, George Siemon of dairy co-op Organic Valley, Jeffrey Hollender, formerly of Seventh Generation, Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, Roger Brown and Linda Mason of Bright Horizons, Amy Domini of Domini Social Investments, all of whom were named to the SVN “Hall of Fame.” Spotted in the crowd of 700 or so were Gifford Pinchot III, president of of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, my friends Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and author Mark Albion (More Than Money: Questions Every MBA Needs to Answer), Danny Kennedy of Sungevity–the closest thing to a power elite of the sustainable business movement.

None of them, to be sure, run FORTUNE 500 companies. But the movement birthed by SVN powered the field of corporate social responsibility, opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs, raised expectations that big companies now need to meet and helped shape the way companies ranging from Google (“Don’t be Evil”) to Walmart do what they do. [click to continue…]

In this contest, everyone wins

Today’s guest blogpost comes from Ian Fisk, who is executive director of the William James Foundation, which promotes responsible business. Ian also has been active for many years in Net Impact,  leading both the Yale chapter and the professional chapter here in Washington, D.C. Over the years, he has founded or helped to found more than a dozen ventures, some non-profit, some for-profit, and some that, he quips, did not last long enough to have an official tax status at all! He’s writing today about the Foundation’s Socially Responsible Business Plan Competition–one of a growing number of competitions intended to promote and reward startups with an expansive view of their responsibility to the greater good.

Late on the afternoon of Friday, December 3rd, the team responsible for the William James Foundation’s Socially Responsible Business Plan Competition will find its email inbox full of socially responsible business plans from around the world. While we work with entrepreneurs of any age, educational level, and country, we are confident that one thing will be true for all entrants: a just-under-the-wire approach to deadlines. Typically, half of the business plans we all year come in during the hour before the deadline, and the WJF has an annual office pool as to how many plans will arrive at 5:00 PM eastern time exactly. (Last year’s winner was six.) Procrastination, it seems, is alive and well.

Maybe that’s because our competitors are spreading their bets. Multiple-bottom-line business plan competitions like ours are proliferting. Here is a list of about 50 of them.

But the WJF team has an unusual message for our entrants: don’t enter to win. Enter to improve your plan.

Sure, we offer a prize pool of around $100,000 worth of in-kind prizes and cash (mostly in-kind) that is divided amongst the top teams in the competition. But our primary focus is on helping the entrepreneurs get to their next stage through detailed and constructive feedback on their business plans.

The WJF’s goal is to support as many entrants as we can. So while last year’s winner Nuru Light, which makes LED lights to replace kerosene in Africa, received around 40 pages of  feedback, as well as $7,000 in cash and $25,000 worth of professional services from such multiple bottom line thought leaders like BBMG and Free Range Studios, the team that finished 150th received around 20 pages of feedback as well. It came from such world-class judges such as our friends Mark Albion, author of Making a Life, Making a Living; entrepreneur Jigar Shah who now leads the Carbon War Room; and social enterprise pioneer Chuck Lief of Greyston Bakery and Intervale. [click to continue…]