May 23, 2011

Why Buying a Hamburger Might Be the Organizing Tool of the Future

Friendly Toast
By Kate Krontiris (who also recently wrote a thoughtful piece on her own blog
about Open Courts, a live streaming of court proceedings out of the Mass. Supreme Court).

There is a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts called “The Friendly Toast.” It serves standard diner food with a bit of colorful flare (think: two eggs over easy with hash browns, amongst inflated Barbie dolls, bright green walls, and 1957 kitchen furniture).

What makes the restaurant truly unique, however, is that its next hire will be somebody with a criminal record.

Why? Because its customers want it that way.

The Friendly Toast agreed to hire a formerly incarcerated person if its customers purchased $1,000 in gift certificates. With some organizing help from the Boston Workers Alliance and Haily House, the customers
did just that. This means that the next opening goes to somebody who can do the job and who has a criminal record. The implications for that person and his family are profound: a steady income, membership in a positive community, a structured environment for recalibration to freedom, and the dignity that comes from a day’s work. For The Friendly Toast, the benefits are also clear: a dedicated employee with training from a local non-profit and supervision from the state probation system, the ensuing loyalty of hungry customers who care about the practices of the businesses they patronize, and the positive brand value that comes from doing a good deed.

This is just one example of what Mike Norman thinks will be a sea-change in organizing on community-level initiatives, be it youth employment, environmental sustainability, or child nutrition. Last year, Norman founded SoChange, an online platform that allows individuals to use their spending power to affect change on issues they care about. Any individual or organization can create a project, invite community members to patronize businesses that have agreed to support that project, and track the combined impact. Even businesses can launch initiatives to see what their customers care most about.

Here is Norman talking about how the Friendly Toast reentry project got started:

For Norman, who has one graduate degree in business and is working toward a second in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the SoChange framework offers four key benefits:

• First, it makes immediately apparent to individuals the power of their own purse – and the impact that that power could have in their own communities.

• Second, it creates a mechanism by which neighborhood individuals and businesses can communicate about what issues matter to them. Individuals can send signals to businesses about what they desire as consumers – and businesses can connect with customers who would be willing to patronize their services in return for commitment to a particular cause.

• Third, it fills a need for mid-spectrum civic engagement. For those individuals who desire to do more than make online donations, but who may not have the time to volunteer in a soup kitchen or tutor young people, the SoChange platform provides a leg up the “ladder of engagement.” It fits civic engagement opportunities right into daily buying transactions in a completely local context.

• And finally, it offers scaling potential of a new variety, expanding the reach of local-level initiatives to the national and international levels, and multiplying the power of partnership. A national membership network could, for example, get its members to pre-pay for gift certificates to whichever one of five national brands commits to do the most for a particular cause. Companies would compete not primarily for the sum of money raised, but rather to win those customers who will now feel a kind of ownership over and loyalty to the company whenever they patronize its services in the future. Customer loyalty supports sustainable growth.
What is exciting about this idea for anybody who has tried to crack the stigma of a criminal record in employment is that it demonstrates some good old common sense mixed with a dash of regular practicality.
Any good business wants to know what its customers care about. It may not have the time or savvy to parse through the complexities of all the social issues at play – but it can understand the simple signal of spending. Businesses that know why their customers are spending money in a particular way can then tailor products and services to meet those preferences, particularly if there is guaranteed demand.

Likewise, the residents of a neighborhood actually do care how area businesses behave with respect to a variety of social issues – but neither do they have the time or savvy to research the standards and compliance of every outfit they patronize. A simple mechanism for spending money at those institutions that meet identified social goals makes it easy for individuals to meaningfully demonstrate their preferences. What SoChange offers is an elegant fix for this market failure of information asymmetry and a tangible way for people to organize around issues of concern.

As applied to reentry-related employment issues, one could envision a community campaign to engage, say, ten local businesses in a hiring initiative, partnering with job-training agencies so that when positions open up, there are trained and supported individuals ready to interview. In convincing businesses to participate, reentry strategists would need to demonstrate that there is indeed a sustainable demand for the services of a firm willing to hire individuals with criminal records. This might mean launching a pilot project to test that theory (as in the Friendly Toast experiment) and it most certainly means a strong mechanism for communicating the results of the experiment to potential partner firms. What was so powerful to the owners of The Friendly Toast was that clients were willing to put down their money before anybody had been hired. For those businesses that are not convinced by the promise of future tax credits or bonding insurance for hiring an individual with a record, this up-front show of commitment sends a powerful signal of customer demand. At the $1,000 threshold, there is a kind of implicit guarantee that a business will not back out of its end of the bargain – since it would risk significant reputational damage if it did not fulfill its obligations.

To have an impact at a much larger scale, perhaps reentry initiatives in New York could pair up with similar programs in Detroit or Albuquerque and invite businesses sited in those three cities and selling to similar markets to engage in a hiring challenge that could win them new customers responding to their social commitments. City and state government could play a role in highlighting this innovative partnership, perhaps by offering tax benefits or other incentives to businesses that engage meaningfully.

We do not need big, flashy, new ideas to solve these social problems that take root from market failures. We just need some common sense and a willingness to think more closely about how to realign incentives, so that everybody wins. In that respect, SoChange seems to have a bright future ahead.