The First Social Enterprise Certification

Think of the last time you visited a grocery store or your local café —the shelves likely contained products stamped with “Fair Trade Certified”, “USDA Organic”, or some other insignia of environmental and social accreditation.

Today’s consumers are increasingly concerned with the origin of their purchases. Their eyes are trained for these labels and markers of certification: buyers value the ability to determine a product’s environmental impact, its impact on growers, or the producer’s treatment of animals all in one glance.

A new certification in town

Current certifications tend to focus on the health or environmental impacts of a product, but that’s not all consumers care about.

According to research conducted in the UK, 75% of consumers surveyed prefer to buy products from a “social enterprise”, an organization that uses most of its profit to benefit society and the environment. Interest in the mission and ethics behind business is on the rise.

Identifying what is a social enterprise, however, is easier said than done; it can be a research-intensive process that most consumers do not have the time for. Just as the USDA Organic and Fair Trade certifications help consumers easily identify safe or ethically traded products, a comparable “social enterprise certification” is needed to help consumers quickly recognize that the products they are purchasing are produced by certified social enterprises. Both the buyer and the social enterprise community will benefit from a reliable and rigorous certification system.

Made in Rhode Island

Here in Providence, the first social enterprise certification and branding program is underway. In 2011, Social Venture Partners Rhode Island launched “Buy with Heart” in an effort to grow awareness of social ventures and help consumers identify social enterprises. To access the many benefits of being a Buy with Heart affiliated enterprise (which includes brand recognition and presence on an online retail shop), an organization must first be Buy with Heart certified.

Becoming certified is a multi-step process. The first step requires completing the BWH Verification Survey, a tool designed to establish if an organization is a social enterprise. Factors such as the organization’s mission, its impact, and its operational practices are evaluated. The Buy with Heart assessment focuses on four criteria: first, and most importantly, the organization must “hold a social mission as the primary reason for being”. Second, it must strive to balance serving the common good and generating profit. Third, the organization must create a veritable impact. And lastly, the organization must use multiple bottom lines- social, environmental, and economical- to measure this impact.

A low score on the survey suspends the certification process; a high score permits the organization to continue in the certification process. Those organizations that do not “pass” the survey are provided with suggestions for improvement if they should chose to re-apply for certification. Those candidates who pass next meet with a Buy with Heart staff member to confirm the validity of the self-assessment.

Drawing from the fields of academia, law, and medicine, the final step towards certification involves a peer review process. To attain this final stamp of approval, the applicant must be reviewed by a panel of previously certified organizations- fellow social enterprises. This step capitalizes on the idea that a certified social enterprise will want to maintain the strength of the Buy with Heart brand; they will not admit a new member unless their mission and practices are solid representatives of the trademark.

Developing the Buy with Heart certification was a collaborative process among business leaders across Rhode Island. “From the beginning, Buy with Heart has drawn on the talents of various organizations and individuals willing to give their energy to the cause,” says Kelly Ramirez, Executive Director at SVPRI and director of the Buy with Heart initiative. Robert Leaver, professor and director of the Pawtucket-based think tank New Commons, contributed crucial expertise. Elizabeth Bennet, a PhD student at Brown University, provided significant scholastic contribution by publishing an analytical paper entitled, “A Social Enterprise Verification: Applying Lessons from the Fair Trade Movement”. Additionally, Buy with Heart has employed students and recent graduates from universities across the state.


Different than the Rest

The unique Buy with Heart Certification process has many benefits to the national community of social enterprises. First, it’s start-up friendly. The combination of a self and peer evaluation eliminates the need for a third-party certification, which can be expensive. Second, the Buy with Heart certification builds community. Becoming certified is the beginning, not the end of the process. In addition to reviewing new applicants for certification, members must participate in annual community learning forums organized by SVPRI to foster further community involvement. “It is really important for our members to be at the core of the decision-making process”, says Ramirez, noting that new standards and benchmarks will be discussed and improved as necessary at annual gatherings.

There are several hundred social enterprises in Rhode Island. Our small state has long been recognized as a hub of social innovation; the influence of the highly creative and entrepreneurial student community and the interconnected nature of our communities are vital components of the state’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. It is no surprise that great strides in the field of social entrepreneurship are happening here.

Don’t be surprised if sooner rather than later, the Buy with Heart logo appears in your grocery store or local café.

Buy With Heart is an awareness brand and umbrella campaign created by Social Venture Partners Rhode Island. Buy With Heart provides marketing resources and opportunities to social ventures so they can scale and maximize impact.

Visit, the one-stop-shop for more than 100 national social enterprise products and services.

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