“It’s better to give than to receive.”
That seems to have long been the mantra for philanthropists of all shapes and sizes. Words that were echoed by my own parents during childhood.
But those words represent a very dated approach to charity. It’s a concept that is swiftly succumbing to change as industries evolve and social entrepreneurship grows. Today, young startup founders and incumbent businesses are more rapidly changing the model; make a profit while making a difference.
Of course, there has been pushback; Dan Palotta spoke to this problem during a 2013 TED Talk on the matter, emphasizing just how skewed perceptions can be.
“You want to make 50 million dollars selling violent video games to kids, go for it,” Dan said. “We’ll put you on the cover of Wired magazine. But you want to make half a million dollars trying to cure kids of malaria, and you’re considered a parasite yourself.”
Despite the discontent of some, social entrepreneurship is evolving into a world of its own.
I wouldn’t necessarily attribute that evolution to Elon Musk, but I can’t think about the evolution of social entrepreneurship without considering the accomplishments of Musk and his organizations (and contributions to society) over the last two decades.
Through Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and SpaceX, Musk has become a pioneer of social entrepreneurship in the modern age, as he seeks to build accessible solutions to renewable energy and push the limits on space exploration for mankind.
In the past, many entrepreneurs focused their activity on growing private businesses. In some cases, they took their companies public. Over the years, they would accumulate their fortunes, and only later in life would they become philanthropists, donating time and money to charitable programs run by others.
Today, we’re seeing a rash of startups going the route of Elon Musk, with entrepreneurs working to improve social and societal issues through the businesses they create. This new business model, evolving without borders, is becoming a hybrid of business, governmental, and social organizations.
The non-profit model, relying on grants and charity, is shifting to a business model driven by social entrepreneurship, where young upstarts are working to tackle major social issues around the world while still generating profits for stakeholders in the company.
Musk is just one such example. You don’t need a $12.3 billion net worth to enact positive change in the world, as evidenced by some of the following social entrepreneurs and their organizations.
1. Yoga Girl
You wouldn’t expect much to come from yoga, but that’s what fueled the start for Rachel Brathen. Her New York Times bestselling book Yoga Girl (with an Instagram account of the same name) has helped her reach millions of people.
She uses the web, including an online channel, OneoEight.tv, to offer health, yoga, and meditation services. She hopes to connect teachers with people in the community who need healing. That’s where Rachel Brathen asked the bigger question.
“What if social media could become a social mission?”
As a result, she has launched 109 World, a socially conscious website that aims to solve urgent global issues such as food insecurity, water pollution, and gender inequality.
2. Safepoint Trust
For 10 years, Marc Koska has been working to redesign medical tools and introduce inexpensive non-reusable syringes for underfunded clinics around the world. By redesigning a simple medical tool, Koska’s organization, Safepoint Trust, has been able to deliver 4 billion safe injections across 40 countries with his breakthrough Auto-Disable syringes.
As a result of the new product and its impact on world health issues over the last decade, The Schwab Foundation listed him as a Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015.
3. Better World Books
In 2002, a trio from Notre Dame was tutoring members of the football team while collecting unwanted books to sell on the internet for extra money. That for-profit activity transformed into a mission to promote literacy and led to the founding of Better World Books.
“Imagine if we could resell books, books that had plenty of life in them, and through that small action find a way to give back and help make the world a little bit better,” said Kreece Fuchs, one of three co-founders of Better World Books.
Together with Xavier Helgesen and Jeff Kurtzman (and a growing list of employees), Better World Books has received over 20 million book donations with 236 million books recycled or reused, while raising more than $23 million for literacy and libraries.
In 2006, Blake Mycoskie started TOMS, a company that uses a One for One business model.
“When I started TOMS in 2006, I was responding to a crisis I saw while traveling in South America: so many children with no shoes,” said Mycoskie. “I had no background in fashion, but I was already a serial entrepreneur with the experience to know how to launch a business.”
The company’s model is simple: for every consumer purchase, an item is given to someone in need. Shoes beget shoes. Eyewear begets eyewear.
In 2015, Mycoskie launched the TOMS Social Entrepreneurship Fund to nurture innovative business models that create meaningful change and inspire others to take similar bold and creative steps to solve world problems.
5. Good Eggs
Not every organization has a global impact, but they can still directly impact people through models that promote social responsibility.
Good Eggs is a prime example of localized social entrepreneurship. This online grocery targets the San Francisco Bay area, and in a world consumed with technology and fast-paced growth – often aligned with the poor food choices of on-the-go workers – Good Eggs aims to bring access to local, fresh, sustainable foods. It delivers the farmers market right to the front door of locals. Good Eggs’ mission and belief is simple: better food leads to a better world.
Debbie Sterling founded GoldieBlox in 2012 with a goal to get girls building things. She saw a vast imbalance in the world of engineering, where women were largely outnumbered by men in science, technology, engineering, and math. She created a line of toys aimed to “disrupt the pink aisle and inspire the future generation of female engineers.”
By 2014, GoldieBlox was named People’s Choice Toy of the Year in Educational Toys and won Best of App Store by Apple the same year. By 2015, the company had more than 4 billion media impressions and now has nearly a quarter million Facebook fans.
It’s proof that changing the world for young women can be fun and profitable.
Getting back to larger organizations, social entrepreneurship and being socially conscious can come in a variety of forms. When a Fortune 500 company aligns its business practices with environmental responsibilities, the impact can be significant and can cut a new path for other organizations to follow.
Adobe Systems, a founding partner of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Building Health Initiative, had made a lofty goal of achieving global carbon neutrality by 2015. As of the end of 2015, 70% of its workplaces were LEED certified, overall water consumption was reduced by 60%, and 97% of waste had been reduced and diverted from landfills.
Adding Social Entrepreneurship to Your Organization
The idea of “doing good and doing well” is alive and kicking in the companies I’ve listed, as well as many others. But how can you make a change to move the needle on social impact while still meeting shareholder objectives and revenue goals?
The first step is to perform an honest assessment and find the causes that align with your business and your mission. Look at the reasons you have for getting involved. You should also consider the following:
What Does Your Brand Represent?
Unless you’re launching a new startup designed around a cause, it’s best to find a cause that complements what you do. For example, a company that sells beach and surf gear might create a line of shirts and use the proceeds to set up an ocean conservation program.
What Do Your Customers Care About?
If you think about your social activity and outreach like a product, it makes sense to do something that your customers care about, like a toy store offering parenting classes and outreach/support programs for single parents.
This will also bring more traffic to the store and improve brand visibility while giving the customer useful skills. Find things that resonate best with your audience, that they find value in.
What is the Cost to Implement, and is it a Sustainable Model?
As a for-profit business, you want to make sure you’re looking at a sustainable business model. Writing checks to another organization isn’t necessarily social entrepreneurship. That’s just charity. And it’s not necessarily sustainable.
On the other hand, do funds have to go somewhere else? Like GoldieBlox, it’s entirely possible for the concept of a product to fuel ideas and inspiration. It’s possible to create a product or business model that changes the way people think and creates a permanent shift in perspective.
How Will Shareholders React?
Partners and stakeholders may not be happy to give over a portion of the profits for the sake of social entrepreneurship. For example, the TOMS model involves giving a product away for every product that is purchased, which cuts into the profit margin of every sale.
However, the entire model of TOMS is built on that social mission, so it enhances the overall business profile. The more you enhance your profile, the more likely stakeholders will be to support it.
Can You Tap Into and Market With Different Mediums?
In the same way you are tapping into the caring and nurturing side of yourself and others in your organization, how can you tap into other mediums to engage your audience and extend the reach of your social mission?
You could, for example, create an educational app to go along with a product line, or use interactive multimedia (like 360-degree video) to tell a story and bring attention to a cause.
By marrying purpose and profit, more and more companies are innovating and addressing social and environmental challenges on a global level. Best of all, they’re doing it in a way that is financially sustainable. It’s a virtuous cycle that benefits everyone involved.