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Spotlight on a Successful Social Enterprise: Equal Exchange

From the Equal Exchange YouTube channel

Financial Success and Core Values
One of my favorite examples of an organization that has been able to raise millions of dollars of capital while staying in control and true to its values is Equal Exchange.

Despite posting enviable growth, this company has successfully retained its mission to create mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and support worker democracy and fair trade throughout the world.

Try some of Equal Exchange’s teas, coffees, chocolates, and fruit. You’ll be hard pressed to find goods of this quality anywhere else, and you’ll feel awesome that what you’re consuming is good for you and good for the world.

So what’s their secret?
How has Equal Exchange been able to grow and thrive for over 25 years while maintaining its mission and values?

Equal Exchange stipulates from the outset that investors have no voting rights. Investors are sufficiently confident in the worker-owners of the company to steward its resources. And investors have never been disappointed – they have received generous dividends every year, resulting in a return that exceeds a comparable investment in the S&P 500.

Notably, Equal Exchange’s structure prevents any investor or owner from profiting from the sale of the company.

Equal Exchange’s structure and investor agreements ensure that only values-aligned investors will be interested. The controls placed shareholder participation have never proven a hurdle to gaining investment. Demand exceeds supply every time. Equal Exchange offers its preferred stock.

Values-Driven Business
Equal Exchange is not successful in spite of its commitment to its mission but because of it. A majority of investors and consumers want to do business with values-driven companies and Equal Exchange meets that demand.

There is plenty of room for more companies to do the same!

What is a Social Enterprise?

What is a Social Enterprise?

CORE Foods team

A social enterprise is a business (for-profit or nonprofit) that, in addition to striving to be profitable, takes actions that in some way make the world a better place. Such actions could include paying a living wage, using environmentally friendly practices, supporting improvements in the business’s community, and so on.

I often refer to such businesses as socially responsible, heart-centered, or mission-driven enterprises. In fact, if you read my blog posts or get to know me to any degree, you’ll often hear me use the terms interchangeably.

While it may seem like a delicate balance to pursue profit while also contributing to a better world, plenty of organizations have been successful in pursuing this business model. And so can you! In fact, evidence exists to support the notion that socially responsible businesses can actually be more profitable than businesses focused solely on profit.

Structurally, as I mentioned, social enterprises can be organized as for-profit or non-profit companies. Depending on the country or locality in which they are established and the preferences of their founders, they may choose to organize themselves as co-operatives, traditional corporations, limited liability companies, benefit corporations, community interest companies, or charitable organizations, to name just a few possibilities. Some create “hybrids,” combinations of two or more entities that work together to achieve the business’ goals.

These days, because of growing public outrage over socially irresponsible companies, many businesses say they are socially responsible. But are they really?

The truth is, many companies add socially responsible activities to their operations because they perceive that, by doing so, they will make their overall conduct more palatable to consumers. In other words, social responsibility does not drive the mission of these organizations. Such activities are added as icing on a cake to make it sweeter to the consumer. From a terminology standpoint, such companies are not social enterprises but merely organizations that operate various “corporate social responsibility” programs.

True social enterprises place mission at the center of everything they do. Many codify their missions into their charter documents. When they raise money from investors, they ensure, through properly drafted agreements, that the investors will not interfere with the long-term pursuit of the company’s mission.

There are infinite ways in which social enterprises can be structured and investor agreements drafted. And there are many wonderful examples of companies that have designed very creative structures to ensure long-term fidelity to mission, even after bringing on investors. Here are a few great examples:

It is a great time to be a social entrepreneur!

Many organizations have already led the way, and you can stand on their shoulders.