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Beneficial Ventures Q&A: Looking at the Role of Social Responsibility in Commercial Real Estate

Seattle, Beneficial Ventures, GreenWorks Realty, Stewardship Partners, environmental sustainability, Kirkland, King County
Image courtesy of Beneficial Ventures

By Jack Stubbs

In an era where social responsibility, community engagement and environmental sustainability are paramount to the objectives of commercial real estate companies, firms are continually striving to implement these ideas into their operating strategies.

Kirkland, Washington-based brokerage firm Beneficial Ventures was formed in 2017 as an evolution of GreenWorks Realty—one of the nation’s first real estate firms focused on creating more sustainable communities—and provides a wide variety of services to commercial, retail, industrial, office and multifamily properties throughout the state of Washington.

Beneficial Ventures is a Certified B Corporation, meaning that it is a for-profit company certified by the global non-profit B Lab to meet certain standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. Beneficial Ventures is the first real estate B-Corp in Washington and the second in the U.S., and joins the ranks of over 2,000 Certified B-Corps from 50 countries and over 130 industries globally.

On June 15th, Beneficial Ventures will be giving their first Beneficial Reinvestment Grant to local non-profit Stewardship Partners. We recently spoke with co-founders Ben Kaufman and Matt Cone and Rebecca Sayre about the formation of Beneficial Ventures, how the company looks to highlight the importance of social responsibility and environmental sustainability in the changing brokerage industry, and what lies ahead for the commercial and residential real estate markets.

What can you tell me about your backgrounds and how this influenced the formation of Beneficial Ventures? How does the newer company built upon—or go in a different direction from—the groundwork laid with GreenWorks Realty? How does your background merge real estate with social responsibility?

Beneficial Ventures is the coming together of a committed group of individuals with diverse experience in real estate, philanthropy and community engagement. Co-founder Ben Kaufman earned an urban planning degree and a commercial real estate certificate from University of Washington. He is committed to working with intent and meaning; this has led his 20 year focus on sustainable community development. His company, GreenWorks Realty, initially formed in 2002, was the first green-focused brokerage in the country.

Co-founder Matt Cone wanted to combine his decade-long experience in philanthropy in the Northwest with his experience developing strategic systems that reduce impacts on the environment. After a discussion with his good friend Ben, they decided to form Washington’s first full-service real estate benefit corporation. Launched this year, Beneficial Ventures acts as an umbrella over GreenWorks and our commercial, luxury and land portfolios.

Who are some of your primary clients and where does the company operate geographically? In broader strokes, what are some of the current goals and strategies of Beneficial Ventures in the greater context of the brokerage industry, and what happens after you close on a sale?

Our clients come from three strategic areas: commercial real estate, residential real estate with a focus on green technologies, and large land conservation projects including “agrihoods and “eco villages”. We focus on the Pacific Northwest, with a concentration in King and Snohomish counties. A portion of all Beneficial Ventures transactions go to support causes that help people and the planet. We call these donations Beneficial Reinvestments Grants from our Beneficial Reinvestment Fund. Our first grant is a donation to local hands-on conservation group, Stewardship Partners.

What can you tell me about Beneficial Ventures’ designation as a social purpose company/Certified B Corporation? What are some of the broader market trends that influenced your decision to integrate this element of social responsibility into your business model?

The desire to pursue a B-Corp Certification came from our personal desire to do good with our work. The modeling for B-Corps actually shows that over the mid- to long-term, this approach is more profitable to investors as they attain loyal customers and passionate employees who are connected and aligned with the core charitable purpose of the B-Corp. The growing trend to form B-corps comes from a desire to make a difference in the world while staying grounded in the principles of capitalism.

Can you elaborate on this broader movement towards conscious capitalism and what it means for the constantly evolving real estate industry? Are there certain geographical submarkets, locally or regionally, that you think are this idea of adopting conscious capitalism more readily? Why or why not?

B-Corps are forming in many different sectors, albeit some faster than others. The tech industry in the Bay Area has been hot. Beneficial Ventures is just the second real estate B-Corp in the U.S., and the first in Washington. We feel the Pacific Northwest is ripe for this approach to real estate. We look at the interest garnered by the Seattle 2030 District and Salmon-Safe development in our city as indicators that the industry is looking at more than the single bottom line. We look forward to playing a role in implementing and expanding innovative strategies, such as green leases, the expansion of indoor air quality technologies and certifications like Built Green, LEED for Homes and Northwest Energy Star.

How will Beneficial Ventures ensure that it continues to evolve and expand its impact, both locally and regionally? In what ways will social responsibility continue to play a role in the market?

Our goal is to build a local boutique brand with small stable of top-tier agents closing beneficial transactions and supporting local non-profits. It’s our core belief that by using the power of capitalism in a sustainable way, we are creating and fostering a new direction for business.

We live in an era where environmental sustainability in the built environment, also, is being recognized as a requirement rather than a preference for landowners, developers and architects. Beneficial Ventures works with environmental certification programs such as Built Green, LEED and Energy Star to further its reach.

Environmental certification programs create value because these structures are built to standards that exceed code, sometimes remarkably so. Often, the improvements are behind the walls. We research technical specifications and translate this substantial value-add to the marketplace. We are well familiar with the extra work and midnight oil that these buildings take to develop and we want to play a role in ensuring the marketplace recognizes this often hidden value. We work closely with all labeling programs to make sure end-users are familiar with their built environment.

What are some of the other more local Northwest organizations in the Puget Sound that Beneficial Ventures works with? How do you think city agencies will continue to encourage efforts around sustainability and social responsibility in the built environment?

We have worked closely with Beneficial State Bank, one of the country’s first B-Corp banks to develop our strategies. They provide a great deal of synergies. We have also become involved with the B-Lab and their community of B-corps in the Northwest. We are beginning discussions with the Seattle 2030 District about how we can help promote green leasing and we are reaching out to the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild and others to develop workshops to educate the public and build collaboration. We are supporting Stewardship Partners with our first Beneficial Reinvestment Grant because we support their work to reduce polluted stormwater run-off by providing resources for and guidance around using green infrastructure and other technologies.

More generally, what do you think is the added importance of this continued collaboration between public and private agencies in the current real estate market?

We have so much capacity to improve our built environment at a time when it is rapidly changing in the Northwest. We have challenges to address such as affordability, pollution, resilience and aging infrastructure, but these challenges create room for innovation if we can remember to listen to each other and look for solutions. We are working with organizations on all sides of the issues, such as the Growth Management Act and homelessness. We have a seat at the table and are ready to work to look at all facets to understand stakeholder perspectives and find solutions.

In the larger marketplace, have you seen awareness around social awareness and stewardship changing over the last 2 to 3 years? What are some of the challenges involved in ensuring that we maintain this positive momentum over the short and long term?

Residential green building slowed after 2008, but as people realize the long-term cost-savings and health benefits of green and efficient buildings, awareness and acceptance is expanding. Having resources and organizations that support those wanting to make more sustainable choices are key for turning goals and policies into practices. For us, we find a lot of inspiration and support from the B-Corp community and plan to continue to engage like-minded players to keep up the momentum.