Creative company Firespring started designing websites for businesses just as the internet was crawling out of the academic and military worlds and into the public sphere. Unlike many other website-building companies established in the mid-to-late 1990s, CEO Jay Wilkinson has survived the dot-com bubble burst and myriad economic ups and downs by adjusting Firespring’s business model to include marketing, printing, and consulting.
In 2013, Wilkinson hit a point he defined as his midlife crisis. The company was doing great, but, Wilkinson confessed, “I didn’t feel like we still had our mojo about us.”
Wilkinson consulted his father, Gil. His dad laid it out simply:
“All I care about is that my kids and my grandkids are productive, and happy citizens in our society,” Wilkinson says.
A day after his conversation with his father, he approached the leadership team at Firespring with a new goal: to be more engaged with the community. He heard about B Corporations, which were corporations that meet the highest standards of “social and environmental performance.”
Wilkinson began the process of becoming a B Corporation shortly thereafter. In order to attain a B Corporation certification, a company must first fill out an online assessment form. The nonprofit B Lab out of Wayne, Pennsylvania, is responsible for handling the certification process in the U.S. and administers the B Impact Assessment (BIA), an extensive list of questions that inquire about a company’s commitment to social and environmental issues. The initial assessment can take between four and six hours to complete. Companies that score at least 80 points of a possible 200 are then asked to submit materials to verify their answers. The questions a company must answer can vary, depending on the type of business, number of employees, and location, says Callie Rojewski, brand campaign manager at B Lab, in an interview conducted via email.
Questions that B Lab asked of Firespring included what percentage of their managers are female, how many employees own stock in the company, and what percentage of their revenue is donated to charity.
Wilkinson says that, although Firespring had fulfilled many of the certification requirements, there were still some elements they noticed they were lacking. Firespring began offering more extensive maternity leave and expanded their vacation policy. Wilkinson says they also paid more attention to the number of women in management positions and on their board of directors.
A B Corporation is different from a Nebraska benefit corporation, as it requires more rigorous standards. At the same time Firespring was working towards becoming a B Corporation, others in Nebraska were interested in conducting business in a more socially conscious manner. Nebraska Legislative Bill 751 was introduced in early 2014.
Gov. David Heineman signed Nebraska LB 751 on April 2, 2014, and the law became effective on July 18, 2014. That was a big day for Firespring, which filed for benefit corporation status in Nebraska and executed their final documents to officially become a nationally certified B Corporation through B-labs.
There are companies that are benefit corporations but are not B Corporations. Johnnie Byrd Brewery, for example, is a benefit corporation because it has pledged fair and honest wage for employees; that their beers will be brewed with 100 percent renewable energy or backed by RECs (renewable energy credits); and that 10 percent of their annual profits will be reinvested back into rural Nebraska with at least half of that investment directed by their employees. However, Johnnie Byrd Brewery is not a certified B Corporation. In fact, about 2,600 companies in the world have earned the B Corporation certification, compared to the nearly 50,000 companies that have taken the BIA.
Firespring was the first company in Nebraska to earn B Corporation certification. Since they earned certification, three other Nebraska companies have also earned that honor: Physicians Thrive in Omaha, Assurity in Lincoln, and Daycos Inc. in Norfolk.
Once a company achieves B Corporation certification, it pays a yearly fee, ranging from $500 (for companies whose yearly sales are below $150,000) up to $50,000 (for yearly sales exceeding $1 billion). In addition, a company has to be recertified every three years.
As a B Corporation, Firespring has enacted a 1, 2, 3 percent rule for their social and environmental engagement: 1 percent of their top-line revenue or profits is given to local nonprofits, 2 percent of their products (such as paper or printing resources) are given away to nonprofits that need assistance, and 3 percent of employee time is spent volunteering. Employees are given one day a month of paid time-off leave to volunteer at a nonprofit of their choice, and the company is specifically proud to support Launch Leadership, The St. Baldrick’s Foundation (a nonprofit organization with the aim of raising funds to help find cures for children with cancer), and Nonprofit Hub.
Wilkinson believes becoming a B Corporation will lead to a great return on investment. One reason is because more employees are looking to work for companies that have a strong track record in helping their communities. In Firespring’s case, more than half of the new employees gained during 2018 stated the company’s B Corporation status was a primary reason why they applied for a job with Firespring.
“Companies that get that are going to thrive. Companies that don’t, I think are going to die,” Wilkinson says. “People won’t want to work for those businesses.”
Correction: The print edition of this article confused B Corporations with benefit corporations. For more information about the differences between the two, visit this page: benefitcorp.net.
Visit bcorporation.net to learn more about B Corporations and firespring.com to learn more about Firespring.