ImpactPHL Award: On Running a Social Enterprise
What the Award Means
We're grateful to be named an Excellence Award winner by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, and winning the inaugural ImpactPHL award is a particular honor. ImpactPHL, a recent initiative of Benjamin Franklin Technology Ventures, seeks to grow Philadelphia's impact economy by encouraging, equipping, and recognizing impactful businesses in the region. This approach to economic development is close to the heart of our agency's mission and aligns with all of our pro bono, civic, and volunteer activity. As a B Corporation, Message Agency is fiercely committed to the idea that businesses—and entire economies—can do well by doing good.
Message Agency is not a high-profile agency, even though we are well-known for our work in a number of communities. It means a lot to know that our hard work, sacrifice, and principles are being recognized by a broader audience than just our clients. It’s important that people see examples of how a business can be responsible and profitable. The hope is that this award inspires more businesses, not just B Corporations, to think about the type of social and environmental impact they can have.
For example, most people would likely be surprised to learn that, as a tech company, Message Agency is highly diverse. 65% of Message Agency’s staff and 87% of its management team are women, minorities, or LGBT individuals, and the company is transgender-owned. We also have a very narrow distribution of wages, from the lowest to highest paid employee in the company, including me as the owner.
Business as a Force for Good?
Business had always been something of a dirty word for me. It was the ideas of visionaries like Judy Wicks, who helped me to see how business could be a force for good. She founded the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which works with local leaders, entrepreneurs, and community foundations to build local economies that work for all. She also founded the Sustainable Business Network (SBN), of which we're a member. I had always been interested in issues around economic development and pathways to opportunity for those who don’t normally have access. Judy's view on entrepreneurship showed me that I could have a successful business that is responsible, ethical, and redistributes value. Rather than fighting against a system, I began to see that it was possible to use it to have a positive impact and achieve goals for the greater good.
My entire professional career has been driven by the understanding that the nonprofit and public sectors are critical parts of our economy, but they aren't always served well by consultants who tend to do nonprofit work pro-bono or at a discounted rate. The services they offered simply weren’t tailored enough to the unique needs of mission-driven organizations. I thought that there had to be a way to specialize in the nonprofit and public sector, meeting their needs as a primary focus of the business rather than an afterthought.
Finding a Recipe That Works
One of our main challenges is balancing how to provide high-quality services to organizations that don’t necessarily have a lot of resources with making sure our staff is well-supported. It is often difficult to run a small and growing business in a way that keeps costs competitive yet accessible, compensates and treats your employees well, and allows you to do projects that create tremendous value for the client. It's a constant battle and balance to maintain.
The key to success as a business owner is taking the value conversation seriously and above all not being greedy. It’s also about managing your overhead and being cost conscious in all aspects of the business. That’s why we have impeccable project management, avoid spending dollars on things that won’t give a business return and have taken a particular approach to growth. We’ve grown the business through good work and our reputation in the community rather than focusing on marketing or outside funding. It’s taken solid business fundamentals, budgeting, and filling in the gaps with hard work—lots of hard work. We’re growing but have done so at a slower pace than other web firms or our competitors. But as a result, we’re able to make decisions about how to run the business without outside bearing on what we do.
One of the ways we are trying to achieve that balance is through a new service line we are currently developing: a low-cost suite of services designed to meet the needs of smaller nonprofits with limited budgets. It includes both technology and consulting services that they couldn't otherwise afford and critical tools to help them manage their overall digital strategy.
The City of Brotherly Love
Another key aspect of our success is tied to where we work. The Philadelphia region has a unique intersection of nonprofit, civic, and academic sectors that is a good fit for the type of business that we are. There are lots of opportunities to work with people on meaningful projects. And the low cost of living means businesses can take more risks, such as bootstrapping.
We’ve also met a lot of business owners here that are truly interested in building up their communities. I saw this a lot as part of the South Street Business Association. Businesses banded together to try to improve the neighborhood and pursue development in a way that made sense for everyone.
I think that the relatively lower cost of living, concentration of opportunity—particularly in the nonprofit sector here—and the city's ability to embrace doing things differently is critical for growth in Philadelphia. You can take more chances here and really do something different—whether at the intersection of art and business, business becoming more social, or nonprofits becoming more entrepreneurial. We've benefitted from it, given back as much as we can, and hope to continue promoting the social impact sector. It's important for other companies, whether they are start-ups or long-standing businesses, to see that focusing your business on impact is not only possible, it's advantageous.
There's More to Be Done
However, to support this goal, Philadelphia needs services and resources that better connect small businesses with the procurement offices of large anchor institutions. There are great opportunities for small business owners to serve the needs of larger organizations that also would really help them ratchet up growth. But they often don't know what's available to them, or how to build the necessary relationships. It’s hard for small businesses owners to know what’s out there and who to contact. This issue was raised as a part of Mayor Kenney’s transition team for economic development, and it’s something that is really important to see through.
Another benefit of this approach is the support it could provide to Philadelphia firms that would be willing to hire and train individuals from under-represented communities. Growing good businesses means growing better jobs for all of Philadelphia's citizens.
We look forward to helping ImpactPHL raise awareness about this new sector in our economy and to contributing to the conversation about what impact businesses need to thrive. Thank you for the honor!