Social Enterprise: Jobs through Innovation

Posted on February 22, 2011

James M. Mandiberg, PhD
Assistant Professor of Social Work, Columbia University

Fountain House and other working communities have led and embraced innovation throughout their history. Social enterprise is an opportunity to embrace innovation again. Social enterprises use the market (business) to meet social or environmental goals.
Social enterprises that you might already be familiar with are small businesses started by social services to train or employ their service users. In the past these have been called “affirmative businesses” and “social firms,” but are now being called Work Integration Social Enterprises or WISEs.
Some working communities have experimented with WISEs. Work outside of these settings is typically done through supported employment or competitive work. These require the person to meet requirements of the jobs, which may be inflexible. On the other hand, WISEs often can adjust the jobs to meet the abilities and interests of the individual. WISEs create an option for those who can’t or don’t wish to meet the requirements of pre-set jobs.
There are many different kinds of WISEs. WISEs in Italy are often organized as “social cooperatives.” These started in the 1970s when Italy passed a law banning large psychiatric hospitals. Italian social cooperatives now run hotels, restaurants, gardening businesses, child care centers and more. WISEs in the U.S. include many restaurants, coffee shops and bakeries, bicycle repair businesses, clothing companies such as T-shirt producers and many others. A unique WISE in Japan, Coco Farm, is a winery!
People who take risks to start a business are called entrepreneurs. Another kind of social enterprise helps entrepreneurs to start their own small businesses. This has been done several ways in mental health. Business incubators are nonprofit organizations established to help people start small businesses by providing business training, supports such as bookkeeping and legal services, some access to money (capital), and often office space. There have been two mental health business incubators in New York, InCube and LAUNCH, and one in Madison, WI, The Enterprise People.
Sometimes starting a small business is called “self employment.” Syracuse University in New York has a self employment program called START-UP/NY that helps people with various disabilities to start small businesses. One big hurdle for people with mental health services backgrounds is finding money to start small businesses. In Toronto, a philanthropist has created a fund specifically to give mental health entrepreneurs access to capital for their small businesses.
There are other kinds of social enterprises as well. Some just raise money for nonprofit organizations. Some try to solve some social problem through a business. Some create opportunities for others to overcome their social and economic exclusion and participate more in society and the economy. A mental health example of the latter is being established in New York State by a consumer run organization, The Empowerment Center. They are creating a credit union for mental health services users and survivors.
Social enterprise can’t solve all social problems! It is an approach, and perhaps more importantly an attitude, that should be added to traditional government and nonprofit social services. It depends on the entrepreneurial ideas of regular people, not service providers. To participate, people need to break free of seeing themselves as service users and instead think about how to create social value. In that way it is totally consistent with Fountain House philosophy and history.

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