How the Social Venture Network changed business in America

Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s renown, is asking me for money, and he’s not selling ice cream. I give him a dollar bill, he stamps it in red ink — NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS — and returns it to me. It’s part of his new crusade to get corporate money out of politics.

“Corporations are not people, and money is not free speech,” Cohen declares.

The 61-year-old ice-cream mogul sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 2000. The T-shirt says: “Stamp Money Out of Politics.” These days,  as “Head Stamper” at StampStampede, Cohen is working for an amendment to the US Constitution to get money out of politics.

It sounds improbable but no more improbable than this: that a gathering of about 70 people, including Ben and his partner Jerry Greenfield, at the rustic Gold Lake Mountain Resort not far from Boulder, Colorado, Colorado back in 1987 could spawn a movement that has changed the way millions of Americans think about and do business.

The Gold Lake get-together led to the creation of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of businesspeople, investors and philanthropists, many of them shaped by the political and cultural movements of the 1960s, who believe that business can change the world for the better. About 700 SVN members, friends and family gathered last week in New York for a 25th anniversary dinner and celebration -- a time to assess how far their movement to remake business has come, and how far it needs to go.

The dinner was a star-studded affair, at least for those of us who pay attention to businesses that aim to build a more just and sustainable economy. On hand along with Ben and Jerry were Eileen Fisher of the eponymous clothing company, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Organic, George Siemon of dairy co-op Organic Valley, Jeffrey Hollender, formerly of Seventh Generation, Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, Roger Brown and Linda Mason of Bright Horizons, Amy Domini of Domini Social Investments, all of whom were named to the SVN “Hall of Fame.”

Spotted in the crowd of 700 or so were Gifford Pinchot III, president of of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, my friends Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and author Mark Albion (More Than Money: Questions Every MBA Needs to Answer), Danny Kennedy of Sungevity–the closest thing to a power elite of the sustainable business movement.

Photo of entrance to Ben & Jerry’s factory by Spirit of America via Shutterstock.

Next page: What the SVN did for corporate social responsibility

None of them, to be sure, run FORTUNE 500 companies. But the movement birthed by SVN powered the field of corporate social responsibility, opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs, raised expectations that big companies now need to meet and helped shape the way companies ranging from Google (“Don’t be Evil”) to Walmart do what they do.

In a letter inviting the pioneers who would form SVN to Gold Lake, Wayne Silby of Calvert Investments and philanthropist and investor Josh Mailman wrote:

An opportunity exists for us to build a new American story, a new American parable, a new American mythology, which can provide an alternative and rewarding vision for some of the economic choices that face our culture.

Yes, they were dreaming big. But even at that first gathering–where people got to know while smoking pot, or sitting in hot tubs, or doing both at once–valuable connections were made. Ben Cohen took a walk with Bernard Glassman, a Brooklyn-born Zen Buddhist master who had started the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY, to help alleviate poverty. Soon after, Ben & Jerry’s become Greyston’s biggest customer, using its brownies in ice cream flavors like Chocolate Fudge Brownie. I wrote about Greyston in my book, Faith and Fortune. “We don’t hire people to bake brownies,” the bakery says. “We bake brownies to hire people.”

The 1960s were alive and well in 1987 at Gold Lake. Mailman once said that SVN and a predecessor group that became the Threshold Foundation were shaped by “a generation of people interested in meditation, Buddhism, Shamanism, rainbow gatherings, and Burning Man.” These were people who didn’t want to check their beliefs, emotions, personalities or principles at the door when they went to work. They were taking their values into the business world.

“SVN totally inspired me,” Eileen Fisher sad at last week’s dinner, recalling an early SVN gathering where people sat in a circle and talked about their passions. “I had never sat in a circle before, and no one had ever asked me what my passion was,” she joked. She brought the practice back to her company, which has earned a reputation as a good employer that provides generous profit-sharing, education and wellness benefits to its people.

Next page: Inspiring B Corp and BSR

The SVN ethos infiltrated big companies. Stonyfield Yogurt, which began with a couple of organic cows, got big, got acquired by Group Danone and now can be found in Walmarts around America. Seventh Generation told people what was in all of its cleaning products, and bigger rivals were forced to do the same. Perhaps more important, a generation or two of young people demanded more from their employers than a paycheck and a pension; they wanted to find meaning and purpose at work, too.

I asked Ben Cohen and Wayne Silby, as SVN veterans, what they saw as the organization’s biggest accomplishment, and what important work is left to be done.

Cohen cited the work of B Lab, a nonprofit that has devised a new corporate structure, called the B Corp, that is designed to harness the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. “B Corps and B Lab are a tremendous success and an outgrowth of SVN,” he said. Those groups, he said, bring objective, measurable standards to the question of what constitutes a good business, and the B Corp structure “legalizes a corporation factoring in more than just making money into its decision-making.” Cohen also pointed to the creation and growth of two business schools, the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and the Presidio Graduate School, that focus on the social and environmental impacts of business.

Social Venture Network also spun off an organization that became Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), the global network of several hundred mostly-big companies that focuses on corporate responsibility and sustainability issues. Unlike SVN, where individuals and companies are vetted before they can belong, BSR invites in all comers–it’s a church that opens its doors to sinners is how a former BSR exec once put it. SVN also spawned Net Impact, a organization of MBAs, college students and young professionals who use their business skills to work for good. [Disclosure: I'm on Net Impact's board.]

The big job ahead, Cohen said, is to get money out of politics. “There’s a reason why government is working for corporations and for the one percent,” he said.

Silby, for his part, cited the strength of SVN’s “sangha” -- a Sanskrit word meaning association or community -- as its biggest accomplishment.

“A community keeps fueling your belief system and gives you the energy to keep you moving forward,” he said.

He said SVN’s belief that business exists not just to generate profits but to make a difference in the world had spread among younger people and outside the U.S.

What’s needed, he said, is a rigorous way of accounting for the full impacts of business.

“We still have a lot of people graduating with MBAs who think 7 percent is more than 6 percent.” That’s not so, he said, if a company’s social and environmental costs are being borne by others. “People aren’t thinking about the whole,” he said.

He’s right about that–too many companies focus narrowly on their short-term returns, and the rest of us too often pay the price. Just this week, BP agreed to pay a $4.5 billion fine in connection with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse agreed to pay a combined $416.9 million to settle charges that they misled investors in the sale of risky mortgage bonds before 2008 financial crisis. There’s still a lot of ugliness out there in corporate America.

But at the same time, the progress made by the responsible business movement has been remarkable. Curious about how it all began, I asked Ben Cohen what led him and Jerry, his junior high school buddy from Long Island, to open their ice cream shop in Burlington, Vt., back in 1978.

“I wanted to be a potter,” he told me, “but I couldn’t sell my pottery”

“And we’re all grateful for that,” I replied.