Mission or money: what is primary?

Social Entrepreneur Guest Post

By John Herron

How many psychiatric social workers do you know who have run a successful business? How many entrepreneurs do you know whose businesses are structured to be able to employ a workforce of individuals in recovery from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders? How many instructors at elite universities can share business and social work theory and practice from the perspective of the guy who took enterprise emergency calls at 2am. Meet John Herron. 

Years ago in my class in business school one professor asked the class what was the purpose of business. The answer from most of the class was some version of ‘…the purpose of business is to make money’. I said the purpose was to ‘improve civilization’ and got a big laugh. By the end of the semester we learned that quality services or products, creating a quality workplace environment, contributing to the community were all aspects of a successful company. Perhaps I was right from the start.

Now after twenty five years of running a social enterprise, I can reflect on the question anew-what’s the purpose of social enterprise?  The answer is exactly the same—to improve civilization. This time, however, the ante is doubled. You still have to do all the functions of a quality business but you do it with the added task of addressing a specific social outcome. The irony is that the focus of a social enterprise has to be primarily to make money! Making money shows that you have produced a quality product or service that customers will buy. This creates a sustainable effort to improve civilization by addressing your specific social purpose.

Some may think this is wrong headed. A social enterprise only has to break even or make a small profit. The real emphasis has to be on the social purpose and making money is a bonus. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You can’t succeed in business by being half-hearted.  You have to be all in. If you don’t seek excellence in the business you won’t succeed in either the enterprise or the social purpose.  Business success can’t be an afterthought, a cherry on top, a by-product. It has to be primary!

When those interested in starting a social enterprise ask me for help they want to impress me with the specific social outcome they are seeking. They are sometimes surprised when my main interest in getting the answer to this question, “If your business’s security alarm goes off at two in the morning, who gets the call?” If the answer is not them, then they are not ready for social enterprise. If they are not ready for total commitment to business success, they won’t create an excellent product or service. Without this excellence they won’t produce their social outcome or improve civilization.

John Herron MSW, MBA

Founder and former CEO, Harbor City Services (now a Division of Humanim, Inc)

John Herron has spent 42 years focused on the study and treatment of schizophrenia as a clinician, teacher, researcher, and administrator. He received his Bachelors degree in History from Loyola College in 1969, his Masters in Social Work from the University of Maryland in 1975, and his executive Masters in Business Administration from Loyola University of Maryland in 1999. Herron founded Harbor City Services, Inc., a self-sustaining social enterprise employing individuals in recovery from mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders in 1987, to improve long-term employment outcomes for those in recovery in spite of their having a chronic illness. He is an assistant clinical professor at University of Maryland School of Medicine, Maryland Psychiatric Research Center and an instructor at Columbia University School of Social Work. He is also past president of the Maryland Chapter of the Social Enterprise Alliance and president of the MECU Credit Union Foundation. The integration of Harbor City Services into Humanim will be completed by October 2012.