Is Benefit Company  Certification a Good Fit for Small Businesses?

Is Benefit Company Certification a Good Fit for Small Businesses?

Benefit Corporations for Good helps small businesses examine, strengthen, and market their ethical and sustainable business practices. Through benefit corporation certification and a consultation with communications and marketing experts Mary Anne Harmer and Tom Hering, businesses can harness their desire to do good to reach a new generation of cause-driven customers. If you are committed to the three P’s—People, Planet, and Profit—then becoming a benefit company might be right for you.

The Encorepreneur Café’s Erin Schmith interviewed Mary Anne and Tom to learn more about the benefits of becoming a Benefit Corporation and their story about how they stumbled upon their niche as encorepreneurs. And lest you think that this is a pursuit for large corporations only, Harmer and Hering have done most of their work with small businesses very few employees. Read on to learn more.

Erin Schmith: Can you two tell me a little bit about your story and why this business?

Tom Hering: Here’s our story. Our paths have crossed for the past thirty years. We were at UO at the same time. I did work for Mary Anne as a writing and communications consultant during her career in health care marketing. Her husband and I worked together at an agency before they knew each other. Lots of connections. It’s just this great story.

So, we’re at Base Camp in Southeast Portland, we’re having a beer on a very hot July day, and if you know Mary Anne well, she’s very direct and to the point, in a very good way. And she said, “Tom, I am ready for a new career chapter, and I want to do something really meaningful. And I want you to come along and do it with me.”

And it took me all of not even another sip of beer and said, “I’m in!”

Along the way, we found this benefit company concept. We  discussed it, and thought, this is a better fit for us as it builds on our business careers, and yet it is still very purpose-driven. And this was incredibly important—to both of us.

And so that’s kind of how we got going. And what we decided, first and foremost, was to write a book, Putting Soul into Business, How the Benefit Corporation is transforming American Business for Good.  At the same time, the Secretary of State’s office asked us to explore developing a third-party standard that for benefit companies that would be state-based. So, we came up with our own brand and assessment, Benefit Corporations for Good

Mary Anne Harmer:  Small businesses liked our assessment because it was affordable, simple, and balanced around both the environment and social-good efforts.

Tom Hering: What we wanted was to provide certification that was  comprehensive, and touches on social justice issues, and environmental issues, and it’s the people and the planet of people, planet, profit—the triple bottom line.

Mary Anne Harmer: It’s very much aligned with the intent of what B Lab does in certifying B Corps, We wanted to keep some of that same discipline and rigor, but still make it accessible to the average small business person—or mid-sized business, even—who  doesn’t have 3-6 months to commit to going through B Lab assessment or the resources to afford the cost

Erin Schmith: I can definitely see a need for that, too. Because I think that there are a lot of small businesses people that are already thinking that way, and they want to be a part of that, but if it’s some big process that’s not geared towards them or not affordable.

Mary Anne Harmer: Exactly.

Tom Hering: Well, let’s add a proof point to that. We are going to certify our twenty first small business on Thursday.  And the  businesses that we have certified to this date in the last nine months have been professional services, women’s sportswear, organic foods, a retail vegan bakery, print shop…

Mary Anne Harmer: An internet server, vineyard, and wine shop.

Tom Hering: So, you can see that we fit with these smaller businesses, and they’re all in various little niches, but their intent around being profitable while being good is all the same.

So, we developed this standard or assessment and it was well received.  We did a survey after we certified our first fifteen companies, to just find out, how are we doing? And without a single exception, every one of them said the certification was a great process, and our thirty-minute consultation they get after they’ve gone through the self-assessment is the most valuable part of the whole process.

Mary Anne Harmer:  And for encorepreneurs or retirees,  here we are in our next career chapter, boomers, and we have found an opportunity  where we can share some of our hard-learned wisdom, experience, our expertise. So, what we’ve done is coupled that with the certification. It’s like many other encorepreneurs  who are  rich with their wisdom and their knowledge. We happen to have a certain area of expertise around marketing, strategic planning, and leadership. And we bring a lot of work around diversity, equity, cultural competency. So, we can share this experience as we’re certifying people. That’s what they love.

Erin Schmith: I think that is just a really awesome thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about what kind of small business you want to run or how you can utilize your experience. It’s such a creative way to do it.

Mary Anne Harmer:  Right. Because small businesses  pay us  an affordable fee for the certification, but we don’t just give them their score and say, “Hey, you passed! Here’s your logo to show you are certified.” But what we want to do,  is keep them working towards that journey of really actualizing the practice of the triple bottom line. So, we offer  them the consultation at the end because we want the Benefit Corporation movement to grow. It puts the soul into business. So, for us, we are ambassadors for the movement.

Tom Hering: But our interest is sharing not only what certification can do for the world and community but what it can do for a business. That’s  and important focus. And most of the people that we’re talking to right now, which is really cool, they’re our children’s age—they’re millennials. Their belief in purpose and choosing products and services that are cause driven is what  resonates with them, and I think that’s what really feeds us. And by the way, we think there are also many boomers that want to give back as they retire and become encorpreneurs…the same interests we have. 

Mary Anne Harmer: If being cause driven as a company is already in your DNA, then why not tell people about it? Get this logo on your website. Let people know that you’re on this path to becoming a Benefit Corporation for Good.

Erin Schmith: So, can you talk about that a little bit? What about a business that is super small, less than five people? Does it make sense for them to do something like this, or are they going to be maybe be doing the practices, but the certification doesn’t mean much to them? What do you think?

Tom Hering: Well, the majority of people that we have certified are one, two people “bands.” That’s it. We only have, I think, two that have more than ten employees right now. And we have one we are meeting with in two weeks that’ll be probably our biggest yet. But this is totally appropriate for the smaller business person.

Mary Anne Harmer: Because how do you differentiate yourself? How do tell customers your story, even if it is just a small company,  and there are only two people, maybe yourself and a partner.  And remember, if you are a sole proprietor, although  you can’t legally become a Benefit Company or Corporation,  you can become certified as a Benefit Corporation for Good, which means that you’ve passed the assessment around the triple bottom line, and this is what you believe in.

Erin Schmith: So, you can get the certification, it’s just not a legal standard.

Mary Anne Harmer: Right. Because it still says you met our requirements about conscientious leadership, social justice and environmental commitments.

Tom Hering: And you know differentiation is critical in this over-communicated society we live in right now. Certification is an easy way to simply tell customers who you are and what you believe, as long as you practice what you preach.

Erin Schmith: Do people who are certified get referrals within your Benefit Corporations for Good network too? I would imagine that these companies share similar values and care about the same things.

Tom Hering: They totally are cross-referring. It’s terrific to see this family. And they’ve got each other’s backs. And they’re all committed to doing the same kind of work, regardless of what their business focus is.

Mary Anne Harmer: We  have twelve different industries, that is a lot of expertise, so our companies will turn to each other when they need something that they provide. And in some way, that is also what encorpreneurs are doing… supporting like-minded people that are retired. So, ultimately, we all win and the communities win, as benefit corporations.

For more information about Benefit Corporations for Good and certification, visit www.benefitcorporationsforgood.com

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