What is Community Wealth Building?

Last week I found myself on two expert panels at a conference in Utica. It was Utica’s first Community Wealth Building Conference and I was talking about social enterprise, benefit corporations, and what it means to look for values-aligned impact investors. It made sense. I’ve given a TED Talk on grassroots entrepreneurship. Good People is a New York benefit corporation, working on B Corp certification, and absolutely dedicated to our social mission. After years of coaching folks on seeking impact investors to support craft food and beverage startups and local entrepreneurship, I am actually on the other side looking for values-aligned money myself.

The irony is that going into the conference, I really had no idea what “Community Wealth Building” actually meant.

Well, I do now and it has brought new clarity around Good People’s social mission. If you’ve been following us, you know that we describe the three pillars of our mission as energy efficiency, community, and human potential. Energy efficiency is pretty obvious, since we sell an energy efficiency product for optimizing fan-based HVAC systems. I’ve always described community in terms of our sense of place in Central New York and giving back. And human potential is about helping our team and the people we touch to be lifelong learners, live their best lives, and aspire to more. The crazy thing is that I really felt like community wealth building might just be the focus of all of these things.

Community Wealth Building Defined

Community Wealth Building is generally described as a new economic development model that is focused around local ownership and cultivating distributed assets that are developed from the resources already available within a given place or community. It embraces many of the grassroots concepts that I find so appealing about small business entrepreneurship, like starting where you are, using a sense of purpose to bring together a team, and paying it forward with your employees and community.

But then it looks at some of the structural choices that communities can make to foster participative economic development, like keeping capital local with community-based lending institutions, employee ownership and democratic business governance models, and focusing on local anchor institutions and the impact of keeping their spending local. Sustainability also has a big place in the model, because stewarding local resources, increasing energy independence, and reducing waste all contribute to the goal of vibrant and resilient local economies.

Before I muddle this too much with my own discursive thinking, let me share something from Jessica Rose’s keynote and the framework of the Democracy Collaborative:

7 Key Drivers to Community Wealth Building

Place: Develop under-utilized local assets of many finds, for benefit of local residents

Ownership: Promotes local, broad-based ownership as the foundation of a thriving local economy

Multipliers: Encourages institutional buy-local strategies to keep money circulating locally

Collaboration: Brings many players to the table, nonprofits, philanthropy, anchors, and cities (and I would add entrepreneurs)

Inclusion: Aims to create inclusive, living wage jobs that help all families enjoy economic security

Workforce: Links training to employment and focuses on jobs for those with barriers to employment

System: Develops Institutions and supportive ecosystems to create a new normal of economic activity

One comment from the conference that I really liked was that it isn’t about creating an alternate economy, it’s about getting people to participate better in the one we already have.

Good People Build Community Wealth

Holy crap! Good People is really about Community Wealth Building. Our place is Central New York and our underutilized resources are the great manufacturers and people in Upstate. Our goal is employee participation and ownership and we would love to support participative ownership in our suppliers and partners. Multipliers is why we are focused on helping New York State meet the 20% building energy reduction by 2020 goal. From contract manufacturing to energy consultants to installers to finance and incentives, collaboration is what it is all about. We are including disabled folks in our supply chain, looking for opportunities in affordable housing and community-based energy-efficiency, and committed to a diverse team that shares in our prosperity. We are all about training and talent development.

OK, so we aren’t developing institutions, but we hope we will be part of the supportive ecosystem in Utica and beyond.

Thanks to CNY Citizen Action for putting this thing together. I’m really looking forward to following-up with many of the people we met and getting something going in Utica. One of my favorite things I learned about was Namaste Solar, a workers coop started in Denver, Colorado that is Colorado’s #1 solar installer with over 100 employees. And they are a B Corp too.

It was an inspiring event and reinforced for me that we are on the right path, uniting entrepreneurship with participative economics and inclusive prosperity. Exciting stuff.


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A New York Benefit Corporation


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