10 December 2007

Sector four

A riddle: If you're not for-profit, and you're not non-profit, what are you?

"Ah..." says the clever reader. "You're the government."
Bush Coronation
"But my lawyers tell me that I really am the government."

But let's just say that you're not the government either. (You listening, George?) You're still a private organization, you don't live off charitable donations, and you're not just in it for the money. Is there a fourth option?

There is. Although not fully formed, the emergent fourth sector comprises organizations not interested in playing by the old rules. Goodbye Marx, Spencer, Jacobs, and even Keynes. Hello KaosPilots. Increasingly referred to as "for-benefit," 4th Sector organizations have the following features:

  • Privately owned and controlled (not government)
  • Sustains its operations based on income generated by their activities (not a charity)
  • Returns some of their surplus to their equity owners in the form of profits (not a non-profit)
  • Leaves some of the value it generates in the community where it can continue to accrue (not merely a profit machine)

While for-benefit organizations often represent the fruit of social entrepreneurship, they're not one and the same. Social entrepreneurship (which has very official support here in Canada and elsewhere) means using the tools, techniques, and attitude of for-profit entrepreneurship to tackle social issues. For-benefits are one possible outcome of social entrepreneurship, but so are innovative charities, non-profits, political organizations, one-off events... even for-profits can be conscripted sometimes.

While no one knows exactly what the 4th Sector is going to look like, it's increasingly obvious that it's coming. (Even the last-to-every-party NYT has caught the shift in the wind.) And it won't be just companies--it's a whole new ecosystem. They're even growing their own venture capital firms. Watch out, old order.
Vernet, Horace - Barricade rue Soufflot
"4th Sector rabble resists Ancien Régime forces?" No way.
"4th Sector overruns final barricade manned by scruffy Ancien Régime holdouts." Oh, yeah.