Rebecca Dray on What’s Happening Now in Social Procurement

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Rebecca Dray has created several social enterprises over the past 20 years, including Buy Social USA, which was created to advance the adoption of social procurement among governments, corporations, small business communities, and the public in the United States. She is a board member at the Social Enterprise Alliance as well as a member of the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) global community that is rolling out the People and Planet First social enterprise verification initiative. In this article, she talks about the effort to build awareness of social enterprise and social procurement in the United States, and how the sector is uniting to build the infrastructure for official recognition and support in the U.S. for the vibrant and growing movement the United Nations has dubbed the Social and Solidarity Economy. We talked to Rebecca in December, 2023.

The Problem With “Buy Social”

When I lived in the United Kingdom, I ran various social enterprises. In the course of business, we contracted as a social enterprise with government agencies and private companies. The term social enterprise was more broadly understood and defined, there were legal entity designations for social enterprises that protected and locked in mission forever.

But when I moved to the U.S. ten years ago, I realized that wasn’t happening here. I couldn’t find examples of legal structures for social enterprises, or any government agencies committed to what I knew as “social procurement.” I also couldn’t find an organization that was working on it. In the UK, there is an organization called Social Enterprise UK. They created an initiative called the Buy Social Corporate Challenge, which encourages and supports corporations to buy from social enterprises. The Challenge was integral in the passing of a government bill called the Social Value Act, which made sure that social procurement had a place in public sector purchasing — this is what’s known as social procurement. So, I started a social enterprise called Buy Social USA, in large part to build an understanding in the U.S. of what social procurement is.

In my early investigations and in trying to build networks within the social enterprise community, we collectively identified that what was missing was a verification system for social enterprises. This system is what makes it possible to find social enterprises and know that they have been vetted and are trustworthy to buy from.

But another big problem I have run into here is that lots of people still don’t understand what “buy social” means. If you just say the words “buy social” to somebody, they interpret that as something like “bi-social,” and they struggle to understand that. Also, lots of people still don’t know what a social enterprise is. Many think the term “social” means social media, not social enterprise. Or maybe they think you’re buying ads on social media or something like that. There was — and is — a huge disconnect as a result. There is also a fear that you are talking about socialism or a misunderstanding that you are only trying to support social impact.

So the movement toward a structure and systems to support social procurement was not gaining traction. I found that the only companies that my little social enterprise was doing work with were big international corporations who knew about the “buy social” movement in other countries. Companies like SAP, or Johnson and Johnson. There were a few other organizations that were coming to us, again mostly because they are doing social procurement in other countries. But nobody else here was picking it up.

People and Planet First: A New Social Enterprise Verification System

So I got involved with the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) and its emerging effort to create a global social enterprise verification. This new global verification system started in September 2022 as a pilot and was then improved and updated and had its international rollout in the fall of 2023.

One of the highly notable features of the verification badge, noticed by anyone involved in social enterprise — is that they did not use the word social enterprise in it.

It is being called instead People and Planet First.

The initiative reflects social enterprise values and principles — but never uses the words.

Originally the verification badge said “SEWF verified social enterprise,” but this business model and way of working is encompassed in many different forms and structures throughout the world, and called many different things in different languages. So rather than focus on an English terminology, SEWF decided to reflect, instead, the shared value system and principles in the name of the verification. Something almost everybody can identify with — putting people and planet first, and not after shareholder returns.

The People and Planet First verification is gaining amazing traction around the world and will be launching a massive, global marketing campaign in 2024, in collaboration with all the international partner networks that helped to shape and now administer the verification in more than 70 countries.

Purchasing with Purpose: A Network of Networks

Constructing A Social Procurement Framework

Along the same lines, I decided to look at the work we were trying to achieve with Buy Social USA and work out how it needed to adapt and change to better fit the massive grassroots movement of people and planet first businesses across the United States.

My fellow founders and I decided to create a new entity called Purchasing with PurposePurchasing with Purpose is a collaborative organization that brings together many different member networks across the country, all of which work with enterprises that put people and planet first.

Again avoiding the challenging lingo, Purchasing with Purpose is named to say exactly what it does and who it’s for. It’s for people who want to purchase with purpose. Many of us have concluded that we need to just speak to people in a way that makes sense to them. And today, many people can resonate with “purchasing with purpose,” because increasingly, it is what they are doing and they understand what it means.

What Purchasing with Purpose has been doing, instead of being just one organization hunting for all the social enterprises around the country and trying to sell the idea of “buy social,” is building a collaborative ecosystem for the U.S.

Purchasing with Purpose intends to be a network of networks for all groups working with enterprises that are putting people and planet first. This includes members of organizations like ASBN (the American Sustainable Business Network), the Fair Trade FederationREDF, and SEA (Social Enterprise Alliance) as well as many other local and national member networks, starting with The Impact Collective in Portland. Through our research we have found more than 130 of these networks in the U.S., all working to try to support enterprises that meet these criteria but identifying their business as many different things, cooperatives, regenerative businesses, fair trade enterprises, social enterprises, not-for-profit businesses, etc. All of them are membership organizations, and all of them are working with impact-based companies that use different terminologies. And so we’re collectively inviting them to all be part of this one system.

This means that if I’m a buyer, I can find these enterprises anywhere in the U.S. under the Purchasing with Purpose umbrella. This will funnel opportunities for purchasing to all the members of those networks rather than burden buyers with the responsibility of having to know who’s part of the network in their area — and what term they use for their business approach. Is it a social cooperative? Is it an employment social enterprise? Is it a revenue-generating nonprofit? It also means that we can cascade out the gaps in supply that we see coming from this shared demand pool. So if companies are looking to buy certain products or services and we cannot find them suppliers, we can let this be known across the country. Many people and planet first enterprises are very creative and have the skills and creativity to start new product lines and services to meet the demand.

Building Networks: How We’re Doing It

Purchasing with Purpose will use the People and Planet First verification as the underpinning criteria for accessing these purchasing opportunities. So, if you meet the five criteria to be verified under the People and Planet First verification system, you’ll be automatically qualified to be a vendor in our collective.

Then as a group, we can focus on both national and local work around purchasing opportunities for all of these enterprises, creating more social procurement opportunities for everyone.

The Purchasing with Purpose network is already busy setting up city-based projects where multiple organizations can come together to purchase from People and Planet First enterprises. The first hub was launched in Portland in the fall of 2023, and we are working with a local impact network there called The Impact Collective. Several cities are in negotiation about where the next ones will be.

These regional hubs will operate on a very local level. The way it is set up in Portland, governments, universities, hospitals, organizations in the nonprofit sector, and corporations who are looking to engage can all come together, work together, and learn from each other in a peer learning setting about how to purchase more impactfully. And they are doing it together with local support from a local organization.

The initiative gives them tools, support, and training from a national perspective while at the same time building legacy and skills for local infrastructure to continue the work in perpetuity. The local Portland organization gets 70% of the funding that we generate from this project. They build local legacy, and our national organization helps them and all the different categories of buyers learn the whole process of how social procurement works.

The Difference We Can Make

I did some research on social procurement in other countries versus here. And in other countries between .1% and .01% of government purchasing budgets are allocated towards social procurement. In the US, that doesn’t exist. Yet, if you imagine what’s possible if you take the annual U.S. government and consumer spending, which is upwards of $27 trillion, 0.01% of that would put $2.7 billion a year into social enterprises and other impact enterprises. This money would recirculate in our local communities and create long-term positive impact for both people and our shared planet.

Social procurement just means intentionally putting suppliers into your supply chain who make impact for all people and our planet with their profit. It’s not a difficult concept.

SEA’s Role in the Movement

The primary value proposition for SEA as a social enterprise ecosystem builder is to be the national membership organization that is hugely important for the entire sector. When I look at other countries, that is what I see.

If SEA is doing the things that the social enterprise sector needs, it will be of vital importance. Things like changing government policy, raising public awareness, and opening up opportunities that benefit social enterprises. I struggle to use the word campaigning, or lobbying and campaigning, because SEA is not allowed to do that as a nonprofit organization. Yet we can be the voice of the sector to help it grow, expand, and inspire, and we can shout about all the great things that are happening.

The other thing SEA can do is bring together all the disparate social enterprise networks to represent the sector at national and international levels to achieve much-needed national policy support for the social enterprise business model. In my view, this is the business model that we should all want because it is self-sustaining. It’s giving back. And so it’s doing two things at once. It’s this beautiful hybrid between non-profit and for-profit, sitting right in the middle. It is circular, it is regenerative. All that is so important for the world that we live in now. So it is such a good model of business for the future.

There are many things we need to tackle together in collaboration. Social procurement, which Purchasing with Purpose represents, is just one piece of the puzzle, one level. The other groups in that collective are organizations like the Fair Trade Federation. You’re not going to say to them, ‘Join SEA,’ because that’s not necessarily relevant to them. Fair Trade enterprises encompass a lot more than the business model of a social enterprise. But their value system is so aligned with SEA’s, and so are many other types of membership bodies in the U.S.

And so, how do we show this big, beautiful movement in all of its complexity? SEA’s role is to represent the social enterprises that recognize themselves as social enterprises within that big movement and to represent the business model in all its configurations. Working on legal structures, advocacy, and representation of the social enterprises and local social enterprise networks is its mandate.

2024 will be an exciting year for the social and solidarity movement nationwide.

#social enterprise #SEA #social procurement #purchasing #socialenterpriseverification #collective #cooperative #peopleandplanet #socialandsolidarityeconomy

Rebecca Dray is a co-founder of both Buy Social USA and Purchasing with Purpose, a member of SEWF, and a board member at SEA.

Karen James Cody is a content writer based in Washington, D.C., the principal at The Allyson Group, and a board member at SEA.

Social Enterprise Alliance is creating a new equitable economic norm by catalyzing social enterprises in the U.S. to grow their revenue and their impact. SEA is an official verification partner of People & Planet First.