Passion the Secret Ingredient of the Social Enterprise

May 24, 2014

Government, Latest Thinking, Social Enterprise

I have been thinking lately about the ways in which the social enterprise has great potential to change the way people engage their passion at work. The “social enterprise” refers to those for-profits that define themselves with a social or environmental mission.

The intersection of passion and work is an important topic since most of us spend most of our adult lives and most of our waking hours involved in work. Those who are passionate about their work are very fortunate, for not everyone has the luxury or opportunity to find work that they love, despite the American myth to the contrary. Many people are alienated from their work but have no choice to earn their living.

This topic is all the more relevant as work hours and productivity in the US have been increased. I work in high tech and, as my colleagues and I can attest, it is often hard to balance life with work, which seems to be all consuming and all demanding. If one isn’t working all the time, one is not seen as a key contributor or work “athlete,” as they are sometimes called in the software industry. For those of us who are conscientious, we often feel torn between having a life and wanting to be appreciated at work. I have read that some European countries do a better job at the life work balance than the US.

As someone who has had ups and downs with finding passion at work, I am intrigued by the possibilities presented by the social enterprise. I don’t want to be Pollyannaish about this. But since the social enterprise defines a social purpose or social goal as intrinsic to the purposes of the company, the model offers more opportunity that those engaged will find passion at work.

At issue, of course, is what gives each of us as individuals passion about our work. Passion or engagement with work arises from many factors. The type of work we do, our particular skill sets and interests, and our own personalities all shape what gives us meaning and passion at work. Whether we are recognized for our work, and paid well for our contribution, and treated fairly with respect to other contributors, are additional factors that contribute to our feelings about work.

All of these factors will still be operative in the social enterprise, of course. But because the social enterprise defines itself by a social mission, it has an extra special ingredient (one could argue the most important ingredient) that can potentially change the dynamic of the other factors that typically affect the intersection of passion at work.

Those who share the vision and purpose of the business, whether it be environmental, social justice or the end of human trafficking, do the work for some reason beyond just their own satisfaction with work and their need for a salary. They care about the issue. That extra ingredient has the possibility of transforming work that otherwise could be mundane, repetitive, uninteresting and not as well paid, into work that is meaningful. Even mundane jobs in a social enterprise could feel meaningful and important in some situations.

As a person who not had the opportunity to combine my personal social passions with my work, this combination of passion for a cause with work sounds promising. Of course, this extra special ingredient that the social enterprise offers cannot by itself guarantee that workers feel passionate about their work. Workers will still need some of the other classic factors that make people passionate about their work. They will still need to be respected and appreciated as workers and they will still need to feel that the organization treats them and other contributors fairly and evenhandedly. Egos and politics are going to be just as much present in social enterprises as they are in the regular for-profit. A social purpose goes a long way in making for passion. But it can’t carry the ball alone.


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