At Retirement, Allen Proctor Reflects on Shift in Social Enterprise Landscape

Allen Proctor, founder of SocialVentures - Photo by Walker Evans

On July 1, Allen Proctor handed over the reins to the organization he created to help support the social enterprise community in Central Ohio. 

SocialVentures was known as the Center for Social Enterprise Development when it took root in 2014 to foster more successful social enterprises in the region. The ultimate goal was to help the nonprofit sector become more self-sufficient. 

When it was founded, “We were extremely concerned about the perpetual struggles of nonprofits and we saw that, also, the donor community was concerned with that,” Proctor says.  

Social enterprises had the potential to be part of the solution. Historically, the business model has blossomed in the nonprofit sector, and, as Proctor points out, continues to be the predominate home outside the region. Social enterprises could not only provide a business solution that helped further the mission of its parent organization, but also create a new, and generally more stable, revenue stream. 

Proctor quickly discovered that while there was an enthusiasm for social enterprise among executive directors, the boards to which they answered frequently had a different idea of how to get to the ultimate goal of funding. It was a battle of potential revenue stream versus securing large donors. 

Nonprofits to Employment-Based Enterprises: A Shifting Landscape

While SocialVentures may not have made the in-roads anticipated in the nonprofit world, the next seven years would bring some unexpected, but positive, evolution to the local social enterprise sector. And SocialVentures would evolve right along with it, changing to meet the needs of the socially-conscious businesses that call the region home.

“What has evolved, in general, is the community support for socially-oriented business has grown enormously, and in particular, it has taken root outside of the nonprofit sector,” Proctor says. “We didn’t expect that.” 

Proctor sees some of the growth spurred by younger generations expecting more out of the business world.

Even outside of social enterprises, specifically, “What we have seen grow is a greater cultural awareness that business has a responsibility in its every day actions to help the community,” Proctor says.  

Societal demand has opened up businesses to new ways of thinking about their place in the community. Instead of a company foundation, serving on boards, writing checks or attending galas, businesses are finding new ways to give back, whether through their hiring practices and examining who fills their board seats, or the mix of vendors they use and community activities they support and participate in.

Not only is a new way of business growing in popularity in the for-profit world, but Proctor sees a specific approach to social enterprise gaining steam in Central Ohio.

“Our biggest surprise and delight is the number of employment-based social enterprises,” Proctor says.

The very definition of social enterprise addresses using creative business models to tackle societal issues, and Proctor sees employment-based enterprises as making in-roads on a perpetual problem that spans ages, races, genders and generations: Poverty.

“We believe social enterprises, particularly employment-based social enterprises, are a far more effective way to create income for minorities and the perpetually poor,” Proctor says.

He references a 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation on poverty in Ohio. Of the 1.3 million non-elderly adults living in poverty across the state, 58% are white and 43% are male. Proctor acknowledges and does not diminish systemic issues of racism and discrimination that have contributed to poverty among minority groups, but instead sees the numbers showing the widespread reach of poverty and those who have never really “plugged into society.”

Whether it was lack of education or other factors, “They don’t deserve to be impoverished,” Proctor says.

In today’s American society, Proctor sees a focus on wealth building that’s a gross disconnect with the realities of perpetual poverty. Many individuals in poverty have had challenges – a history with drugs, incarceration or trafficking, or may have disabilities or be chronically homeless. There’s a basic human right that’s more needed and realistic than wealth building for individuals in poverty. It’s sustainable employment.

This is where the mission of SocialVentures has seen a major shift. Proctor explains that part of their advocacy has come in the form of helping business leaders realize that providing an individual with barriers to employment with a sustainable job opportunity is just the beginning. Helping them succeed is another thing.

“Hiring them and having them fail a drug test and getting rid of them isn’t the path,” Proctor says. “It’s knowing that they will fail a drug test and how are you going to deal with helping them to move along that path.”

Social enterprises have demonstrated their commitment to the goal of helping these individuals be successful.

And SocialVentures’ goal is to help amplify these businesses.

Initially, Proctor thought the critical success factor of his organization would be providing knowledge, training and coaching. Instead, Proctor says, the success factor is connection to customers. And capital.

“Starting is easy; surviving is hard,” Proctor says. “We’ve focused on the hard part.”

The organization’s mission has become broader and more ambitious and SocialVentures now aims to expand retail business for social enterprises and educate larger businesses on supporting social enterprises with their B2B purchasing power.

As for capital, the other part of SocialVentures’ recipe for success, dollars in the region have remained largely oriented towards high-growth businesses. Proctor points out that as a true social enterprise that might be distributing a majority of its profits or have a significant percentage of supported employment folks, high-growth might not really be attainable. In such a young business sector, ROI will also be slower to come.

That’s where the SocialVentures fund comes in. The organization launched its fund in 2017 to support local social enterprises, making its first investment of $50,000 in Roosevelt Coffee Roasters the following year.

“Our investors are more interested in the impact their investment creates than they are in the financial return,” Proctor says.

However, Proctor does want to see more investors put dollars towards philanthropic and foundation investment in the truest sense of the word that they expect money back. It’s money that doesn’t yet exist in the region.

Proctor and SocialVentures have been instrumental in partnering with The Metropreneur for the annual Social Enterprise of the Year Awards presented at Aspire. Above Proctor presents an award at Aspire 2018 – Photo by Walker Evans

Carrying the Torch

Proctor has known for a few years that his time as head of SocialVentures would be coming to an end. Seeing the notion of social enterprise being embraced by a younger demographic, he approached the board over two years ago to say that as he neared 70, the organization would need to make a change. Since that time, SocialVentures has also oriented its board towards younger professionals, with one-third of the seats filled by individuals under 40.

Moving into its next chapter, SocialVentures will be led by Vicki Bowen Hewes as Proctor moves to the role of founder & CEO emeritus.

Proctor sees direct parallels between Hewes’ leadership at Dress for Success – she founded the Columbus chapter in 2007 – and the social enterprise sector.

While anyone familiar with Dress for Success will associate the organization with helping women dress professionally for job interviews, Proctor says Hewes pivoted the organization to provide a more well-rounded approach to employment than just clothing. She realized her organization also needed to focus on soft skills and preparing individuals for employment – the exact strategies many social enterprises enact to help their employees be successful.

“She has some really solid understanding of the challenges of providing for success for people that have experienced barriers to traditional employment,” Proctor says.

As many social enterprises are either owned or led by women, Proctor sees power, and a new market, in Hewes’ network as well.

“[She] has an amazing network among women leaders both locally and nationally,” Proctor says.

The Future of Social Enterprise in Central Ohio

Summing up his time with SocialVentures, Proctor says, “I think the major success of the last seven years is we not just created a movement, but we created a broader awareness of new ways to make a difference in our community.”

And the events of the last year created an ideal environment to build momentum around social enterprise and a new way of doing business. Coming out of the pandemic and through movements like Black Lives Matter, there’s more awareness than ever of the cultural and economic divides that exist within the city.

“Now, I think, is the time for this approach to business to become mainstream,” Proctor says.

Over the next five years, it’s time for community leaders to pull together and bring civic and philanthropic leaders into the social enterprise fold.

Celebrate Proctor’s retirement at Positioned to Prosper on Tuesday, August 3. Click here for more information and tickets.

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