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Taking On Harvard

In Kindness, Trends on June 15, 2010 at 7:20 pm

I’ve been following the growth of a new business model called social entrepreneurism. While it really isn’t new (remember all the “corporate citizenship” talk of the 80s and 90s?) there seems to be a renewed desire to use the free market for good, and a willingness to take the “doing well by doing good” model farther than before.

The standard-bearer for social entrepreneurism (or at least one of its most visible success stories) is Project 7. Tyler Merrick has used his run-of-the-mill company (he sells t-shirts and breath mints) to help thousands of hungry, poor and homeless. Tyler and others like him are proving out this new model with varying levels of success. A lot of that success, I suspect, depends on how little owners or investors are willing to accept in salary or return. And a good entrepreneur may be able to squeeze more efficiencies out of the business to deliver some level of both profit and philanthropy.

Today, I read an article in the Harvard Business Review that shocked me with its approach to this trend. While some schools (Clark University is a good example) are adding curricula and resources to stay abreast of these changes, HBR panned the idea and said, fundamentally, all entities have to fall into one of two categories. They’re either for profit or for good. Not both.

I couldn’t disagree more.

While I realize that profit and kindness are sometimes at odds in a capitalist market, I also reject the idea that entrepreneurs can’t use their business acumen to help those in need just as they use their spare time or personal resources. It comes down to heart. Companies have hearts – the collective souls of people who work there. And this issue, like any issue that matters, is about heart. It’s about motive. The article is right. We certainly don’t need any more corporations whose philanthropic goals don’t reach any higher than checking a box. If a company’s motive for supporting a charity is to generate some good PR and therefore increase revenue, then maybe they should rethink their business plan. There are more efficient ways to sell.

But outside the ivy-covered walls of Harvard there exist thousands of businesses whose people care as much about causes as they do about coin. And who’s to say that those companies aren’t just as legitimate resources for social change as any other forces? Who’s to say that capitalists can’t change the word? Much of the problem is that we just haven’t seen it. We’re used to seeing churches and the government help people. So we tend to think of charity (or welfare) as their bailiwick. But you know what churches and government are? They’re people. And I suspect (though I have zero research to back this up) that the groups of people who are most effective at helping others are not the ones who memorize catechisms or practice Lean Six Sigma. They are the ones who are most passionate about it. And the ones who most closely approach one-to-one relationship to those helped.

As an agency, we have recommended community and philanthropic initiatives to our clients in the past as a way to network with like-minded community members and grow a company’s influence while supporting worthy causes. But there have been companies we’ve worked where we didn’t pursue such an initiative because it didn’t fit their ethos. Some companies are only concerned with making money. I don’t find anything wrong with those companies. I appreciate their honesty in making that their primary goal and not pretending it is anything other. But there are companies who have both charity and profit in their core values, as crazy as that sounds. Harvard should look into it.

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