Could this “UBI for social enterprise” help fund business for good? It may be a stretch to call it a universal basic income, but the Boulder-based social enterprise accelerator COMMON wants to give all its member companies a flat monthly stipend from a crowdsourced fund.
In 2011, a group of five entrepreneurs and designers led by advertising veteran Alex Bogusky got together in Boulder, Colorado to launch a startup accelerator called COMMON. The idea behind the accelerator was to build out an online community in which companies and individual entrepreneurs alike could share knowledge and tips for growing their ventures. Each member would pay $99 a month for access to the community, and the main criteria was that whatever company or initiative they were launching had to be geared toward social good. “We wanted to address a new kind of capitalism,” says COMMON cofounder Rob Schuham.
Oftentimes, social entrepreneurs have a difficult time accessing startup venture capital and brand support from more mainstream accelerator programs. But Bogusky and his colleagues wanted to create an accelerator that would accessible to social entrepreneurs worldwide via the internet, and with a low enough cost for entry that even small startups and nonprofit ventures could benefit. The monthly fee, they figured, was minimal enough to encourage a variety of startups to apply, but high enough to keep operations running. To date, COMMON’s roughly 200 member ventures span Choose, a platform that helps individuals purchase carbon credits to offset their environmental footprint, and Rice Love, a startup that upcycles rice bags into consumer products.
COMMON has largely focused on helping these small ventures better brand themselves to attract attention on the market, but now the accelerator will be trying a different way to give their member companies a boost. On May 23, during the accelerators annual summit (or UNSUMMIT, as it’s called), COMMON announced the launch of what it’s calling a crowdfunded basic income program, called COMMON Cents, that will pool money from outside donors and COMMON members alike, and redistribute it to member companies to support their work. COMMON Cents will use the blockchain to seed monthly payments to member companies from the “liquidity pool,” where the crowdsourced funds are collected. COMMON contributed $5,000 up front to the pool, and launched a crowdfunding round in tandem with the announcement of COMMON Cents to grow the value of the pool (the COMMON co-founders are up front about the fact that the first basic income payments to members will be tiny).
“The idea of COMMON Cents really has its roots in collaboration,” Bogusky says. Oftentimes, the COMMON team has watched as socially driven entrepreneurs start to drift away from or minimize their original mission, especially if it takes a little longer than anticipated to get their company up and running and start turning a profit. “We refer to that as the gravitational pull of profitability and capital,” Schuham says. “So our intent with COMMON Cents is to put the brakes on this dynamic and ensure that people can take the time they need to dial in their business in the right way.”
In theory, it’s a good idea, but COMMON Cents is far from a true universal basic income. UBI is a model by which an entity–ideally, the government–offers members enough foundational capital to secure basic necessities like food and shelter. There are a number of basic income pilots in the works across the world: The nonprofit GiveDirectly is equipping around 16,000 people in Kenya with an extra $22 per month–double most people’s income–for 12 years, and in Oakland, the accelerator Y Combinator is giving around 1,000 low-income residents $1,000 a month for up to five years.
The focus of these pilot programs is to understand how raising individuals above the poverty line affects their lives and how they contribute to society. COMMON Cents wants to understand how small social enterprises respond to an influx of cash. “It’s UBI in terms of design and shape, but not in terms of keeping people over the poverty line,” Bogusky says. And it’s also different in its financing structure–while most UBI programs are funded by a government program, or a high-net-worth nonprofit or company, COMMON wanted to keep theirs crowdsourced “because we feel that it’s important to get as many members of the community engaged and involved as possible,” says Mark Eckhart, another COMMON cofounder. They anticipate that COMMON members might direct some revenue from their companies back into the liquidity pool to help others, or that outside supporters might grant some funds to the accelerator to distribute.
At this phase, it’s certainly still in experimental mode, but COMMON’s cofounders are hopeful that the model will prove interesting enough to social entrepreneurs that COMMON’s membership (and the collective asset pool) will grow over time.