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January 24, 2008

It's Not Easy Being Green... But It's Getting Easier

The last few years have been great for raising awareness and boosting green commerce. Many in the business community, from large corporations to small businesses, are starting to see that adopting a greener attitude makes sense—conserving energy and supplying environmentally sound products and services benefits the environment and the bottom line. It's difficult to tell at times whether real change is taking place behind the claims, but it appears even Target and Wal-Mart are taking measures to reduce their environmental impact. Recycle

The same could be said for social enterprises like Materials Matter. We've had some banner years of growth recently, as nonprofits and businesses alike see the value of creating business models that benefit the "triple bottom line" of positive financial, social and environmental outcomes. The announcement of the America Forward initiative is evidence that the movement is about to grow new muscle with the support of policy makers.

The road has been far from smooth for either cause. Though describing activities that have been going on since the Girl Scouts sold their first box of Thin Mints, the term “social enterprise” has taken a meandering path into the public awareness, surfacing in discussion of everything from the Grameen Bank and it’s hero-founder Dr. Muhammad Yunus to the feel-good deliciousness of fair-trade coffees. And there were the cautionary tales as well, such as the Harvard Business Review’s 2005 article titled 'Should Nonprofits Seek Profits?' or the June 2007 SEEDCO Foundation report called “The Limits of Social Enterprise.” The latter argued that nonprofits running commercial businesses generally leads to frustration and failure, either of the venture itself or of its revenue projections. The overall agreement in these articles seemed to be that “unrealistic expectations” about financial outcomes are the root problem of unsuccessful earned-income ventures for nonprofits.

When are unrealistic expectations not the root of dissatisfaction? And when are they not accompanied by the kind of beautiful hope where all great changes are born?

Materials Matter is a venture that embraces both green commerce and social enterprise as our basic business models. We salvage materials and rescue excess, saving them both from landfills. Those goods are then distributed to nonprofit building shelters or housing, or sold to the public to create earned income we can use to run our organization and bulk-purchase the materials we can’t find in the wild. The crew here knows all about frustration and failure, but we also know about resilience and success. We hope that 2008 brings more good news for both green commerce and social enterprise, proving that activism can be incredibly powerful when it finds a way to work within the market.

January 7, 2008

Why We Do What We Do

Wishing everybody a Happy New Year! It's interesting when asked why I do the work I do or why I got into this field. I never really thought about it at all until recently asked during an interview for a newspaper article [See it here “Couple seeks ways to re-use building materials to aid Orange County nonprofits”]. Starfish

I believe that people can make a difference in so many different ways. Some people become doctors, some people have a lot of money to make donations to philanthropic endeavors, some people volunteer, etc. Jason and I chose to do this because it’s what we know how to do. We both fell into our work with nonprofits, and with Materials Matter saw an opportunity to help nonprofits and ultimately help people have a better life.

Many people don’t view nonprofits as a business. Whereas, looking at the business models for big builders as well as the Targets and WalMarts of the world, they have distribution centers and do large-scale purchasing to achieve the biggest discounts they can. They pool their resources and spend the least amount of money and time to run in the most efficient ways they can. We saw a need for that in the nonprofit world. There are something like 130,000 nonprofits in Orange County, California, alone, all fending for themselves. Our thought was to pool the nonprofits -- to create a place for collaboration so that we can all achieve more and ultimately serve more individuals in need. Some may need a home, some may need a warm place to spend one night, some may need a meal, some may need a safe haven from abusive family. There are so many wonderful and meaningful charities throughout Southern California and the country. If we can make an impact and help to increase the number of projects that can be done and ultimately help many more people, well who wouldn’t feel good about that?

We know that what we do is needed. We know that this is our way to make a difference. Sort of like the starfish story where the boy is on the beach and throwing starfish into the ocean. The dad asks why he’s doing that as there are hundreds and thousands of starfish washed on onto the sand. The boy says yes, but at least this one will live today. (Or something like that...) Well, that’s our philosophy. If we can make a difference in just one person’s life, than we’ve done what we set out to do.

Also, we know what it’s like to have rough times. We know what it’s like to feel like there’s no use going on -- that one bad thing keeps happening after another. And when there’s one thing that makes you smile or forget everything else for just a minute, it’s the greatest feeling in the world. We hope that we provide that, not only for the people in need, but also for the people who work at the nonprofits and struggle daily to accomplish their work.

We don’t get to hand the families keys to their new homes, or open the doors to the shelter that will keep them from their abusive spouse. We don’t get to see the children’s faces when they see their room painted and the leaks repaired. We don’t get to install the windows in the facility or the shingles on the roofs. We’re not the Habitats, the HomeAids nor the Rebuilding Togethers who actually do the projects. But, because of the materials we provide to these and other nonprofits, they will be able to hand out more keys, open more doors and bring more smiles to more people…and that’s why we do it.