Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) is the champion for social enterprise in the United States. Our aim is for social enterprise to reach its full potential as a force for positive social change, in service to the common good. To achieve this purpose, we provide social enterprises with the tools and resources they need to succeed, and work on building an optimal environment in which they can thrive.
We carry out our work through four strategies:
Our signature event, the Social Enterprise Summit, is a key offering that cuts across all four strategy areas. For the last dozen years, this three-day national event has been the gathering of social enterprise, with a typical attendance of 500 to 700 participants and dozens of expert speakers. In 2014, we'll meet again in Nashville April 14 - 16.
SEA brings several assets to bear in carrying out its work. These include a 15-year history of field leadership, a national network of over 900 members, and a local footprint through our chapters. Among our members we count the top practitioners of social enterprise, the leading thinkers, investors, public policy leaders and a wide range of service providers.
Our goal is to make membership in Social Enterprise Alliance both indispensable and accessible to anyone who self-identifies with the field. SEA members receive value in four ways:
Direct Value — We provide tools, knowledge, visibility and networks that help social enterprises do their work better. For example, our online Knowledge Center features over 2,000 searchable research papers, business plans, tools and templates. Our national Summits typically offer 30 skill-building workshops. Our newsletter and social networks spread news and information to over 22,000 subscribers, fans and followers. Our staff provides “high touch” service to members searching for resources and information.
Collective Value — A rising tide raises all ships. We raise the tide through our public policy, awareness building, data aggregation and storytelling work. For example, we work on a national as well as a state and local policy agenda. We are a key partner in the Great Social Enterprise Census which seeks to measure the size of the social enterprise sector in the United States. We were a key player in turning back salesforce.com’s efforts to privatize the term “social enterprise” by trademarking it.
Connective Value — SEA members expand their communities and networks both locally and nationally. Our annual Summit in 2014 focuses specifically on connecting our members to one another and will include valuable intentional networking activities. Throughout the year members have access to our online social media communities and virtual webinars, and we often connect members directly to other members with similar interests. Chapters also offer an ongoing network-building opportunity for our members.
Local value — We catalyze local communities of practice through our chapter network. Each chapter produces at least four, and usually closer to a dozen, local community and educational events annually, and takes an active role in local policy public policy efforts.
Both individuals and organizations may join us, with a sliding scale of member benefits and annual dues designed to appeal to members of all types and sizes.
Our rapidly expanding chapter network now numbers 16 chapters in 14 states. These local clusters of SEA members provide local networking and collaboration opportunities, act as the focal point for local policy and field-building awareness work, and serve as a key distribution channel for our intellectual content.
Social Enterprise Alliance Chapters are organic and grassroots, with local Boards who guide local efforts within guidelines established by the national SEA office. SEA national staff develops products and services for chapter use and coordinates efforts across chapters.
A provisional chapter can be established in any distinct geographic market with at least ten SEA members, and a full chapter charter may be awarded once there are 15 members. SEA has a detailed process for launching successful chapters. For more information, please contact the Chapter Services Leader at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since our founding in 2000, SEA’s purpose has been to serve social enterprises and drive their success by spreading knowledge, and driving networks and communities of social enterprise. Our model has been largely that of a traditional, introspective membership organization, focused on serving individual members by offering packages of specific benefits at various levels, and producing a popular national conference each year.
We’ve enjoyed some success with this model, with membership recently reaching 1,100 and our chapter network now at 17 chapters and still spreading. Indeed, we’ve followed what has been the prevailing model for membership associations for a long time.
It is a model that was designed for the self-perpetuation of the association, but it does not necessarily reflect how people and sectors are organizing today, particularly in the social change space. In fact it’s a dying model.
Meanwhile, the social enterprise field has exploded since 2000. By one estimate, there are as many as 650,000 social enterprises in the U.S. Even if this estimate is inflated by as much as a factor of ten, 65,000 social enterprises still suggest a vast movement is taking foot to use the power of markets to drive social benefit.
Over the last year, SEA and its Board have engaged in a strategic discernment process to re-envision how we can seize the opportunity for social enterprise to create massive, disruptive change. The result is a strategy for reinventing SEA that we are calling “SEA Version 2.0” (“V2.0” for short).
The fundamental premise of V2.0 is that it is time for SEA to turn its attention away from the fading, inward view of a traditional membership organization, towards the bright, external, activist view of a movement builder. Our attention should be on vitalizing a robust social enterprise ecosystem in which social enterprises can flourish in number, size and impact.
There are six key elements to the V2.0 strategy:
A. Focus on the Building Blocks
Our theory of change posits that to advance the social enterprise ecosystem, six essential Building Blocks must be set in place, then mortared by the communities and networks we create through SEA. These Building Blocks will serve as the organizing principle for virtually all of our content development, research, and partnerships in V2.0. The Building Blocks include:
Knowledge, information, and best practices;
Marketplaces for social enterprise products and services;
Supportive public policy;
Flow of capital to the sector;
The best talent; and
Care for the mind, body and spirit of social enterprisers.
B. Amass the masses by lowering the barrier to entry
The fading membership organization model relies on a quid pro quo exchange of a member’s money for a menu of specific benefits we provide. The emerging models for organizing people and movements flip this approach on its head. Instead of “dollars for benefits”, the exchange is one of “attention for engagement”. V2.0 will be driven by the idea of reducing the cost of initial participation in SEA to zero in order to quickly build the critical size of the network so that the network itself becomes monetizable.
C. Build alliances
“Alliance” is 33% of our name, but heretofore we have never made it a central focus of our work. This will change with V2.0. In each of the six Building Block areas, amazing organizations and individuals are already doing great work. We will seek out best-of-class players in each of these areas and establish relationships that create two-way access with our network in order to drive rapid uptake of their projects. We will build these alliances with an eye towards value creation for our network as well as potential financial upside for SEA.
D. Power with technology and infrastructure
Our current technology backbone is a rudimentary in-house membership database, sufficient for the current 1,000-member quid pro quo model but not to power a movement-builder with membership numbering to six digits.
V2.0 will need to be powered by a sophisticated CRM/AMS (Customer Relationship Management / Association Management System) capable of delivering many different forms of value and connectivity among different constituencies and communities. We envision this as a central space where our members and partners can engage meaningfully across distances through such features as self-organized online working groups, collaborative content creation, and community-curated knowledge. We also believe it can provide the groundwork for a public-facing social enterprise marketplace, one that aims to connect the buying public with the myriad goods and services that social enterprises offer.
E. Curate, curate, curate
Building networks, relationships and partnerships requires that we increase our own intellectual capital and capacity to that of a true thought leader. In V2.0 we will be curating and creating content, managing an expanded knowledge center, managing multiple online sub-communities, populating an online directory and marketplace of social enterprises, and managing field research and policy papers.
F. Create sustainability and growth engines
In many ways, SEA V2.0 resembles the launch of a whole new social enterprise. We're creating new products, under a new business model, and reaching into new markets. Success will largely depend on two factors: How rapidly we can develop offerings with provable value to our audiences, and how quickly we can make them cash-positive endeavors that pay their own way. We expect that each new program and service we develop will undergo numerous iterations before reaching sustainability, which is why we favor a quick-to-market, quick-to-learn approach.
Collectively, these outcomes will reinvent Social Enterprise Alliance as a movement builder that drives the success of the social enterprise field in the United States.
Note: SEA’s organizational history dates to 1997, but the social enterprise industry dates back much further. Click here to download a pdf of Evolution of The Social Enterprise Industry, which describes key events in the field through 2008, after which, according to the author, Institute for Social Entrepreneurs, the explosion of the field became too massive to codify.
From its initial stirrings in the middle of the 20th century, the social enterprise industry had been fragmented and few of its practitioners knew each other. That began to change when six veterans in the field (Jerr Boschee, Jed Emerson, Gary Mulhair, John Riggan, Billy Shore and Richard Steckel) met in Seattle August 13, 1997, to design the first national gathering for social entrepreneurs. The event took place 15 months later (November 12-15, 1998) in Colorado Springs, attended by 182 people, including representatives from 92 nonprofits and 47 management assistance providers.
The second gathering took place in Miami April 27-30, 2000, at which time Charles King became the founding Chair of a fledgling 501(c)3 called The National Gathering for Social Entrepreneurs.
The terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda postponed the third gathering, originally scheduled for September 12-15, 2001. It eventually took place November 28 – December 1 in Seattle. The fourth gathering follow a year later, December 4-6, 2002, in Minneapolis, after which The National Gathering absorbed the remnants of Social Entrepreneurs Allied for Change (SEA-Change) and named Beth Bubis its first President and CEO. Other senior staff members included Jim McClurg and Jim Pitofsky.
During the next six years, the national event changed its name twice but eventually became known as the Social Enterprise Summit in 2008. During that same year, SEA joined with sister organizations around the globe to create the first Social Enterprise World Forum in Scotland and in 2010 hosted the 3rd World Forum in San Francisco, attended by more than 730 people from 31 countries.
The dates and locations of the fifth through 14th national events include the following: