It was way back in the early 1980s that Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton defined the concept of social entrepreneurship. Forty years later, this ground-breaking approach is still inspiring dreams and plans for sweeping social changes.
His idea was to move away from the ancient concept of charity: providing short-term help for the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the disadvantaged, without addressing the root causes of these issues. Instead, he envisaged a new approach, often characterized as Doing Well by Doing Good.
Through this innovative model, for-profit businesses thrive by creatively tying profit centers to goods and services that directly benefit communities and citizens right from the get-go. All over the world, countless inspiring examples are improving (and saving) lives.
Bridging the Gap between Dole and Donation
Often focused on problems whose scopes are too narrow for legislation, at scales that are too small to attract private investors, social entrepreneurs identify very specific knots in the fabric of society. They then devise ways of removing these hurdles, while posting profits that ensure the sustainability of these projects.
Blending the hardheaded business mindsets and paternalistic government interventions, these hybrid initiatives must comply with tough financial constraints while pursuing their social goals. Typically, these profits-with-purpose operations are designed to benefit marginalized groups. By rebalancing unfair socio-economic conditions, their lives are transformed forever.
Aims, Not Alms
However, there is a major caveat: these endeavors must be financially sustainable, with the new socioeconomic equilibrium being self-sustaining over the long term. This is because it’s almost impossible to ensure long-term flows of subsidies underwritten by taxpayers or funded by philanthropists.
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Here are a few inspiring examples of social (aka altruistic) entrepreneurship:
- Grameen Bank grew out of a financial experiment in the late 1970s, offering micro-loans to very poor Bangladeshis. As other institutions realized that very low default rates made this a feasible option, the system spread to many other countries all over the world, underpinned by the rapid development of flexible fintech and low-cost mobile telephones;
- GoodWeave began as an attempt to rescue poor children sold to labor brokers ‘recruiting’ workers for India’s carpet weaving industry. Today, it operates worldwide, advocating for social changes that will end child labor, bonded labor, and forced labor in global supply chains. So when US consumers buy a GoodWeave-certified rug at Target or Wayfair, they know that it is ethically sourced, checked by female inspectors who can enter the women’s quarters in South Asian homes (where most of these carpets are produced);
- Imazon is preserving the Amazon rainforest and its vulnerable peoples by repurposing public satellite infrastructure. Using government-built satellites, it tracks changes in the Amazon basin in real time, particularly new roads cut by illegal loggers and wildcat mining operations that poison its rivers (and riverbank dwellers) with mercury run-off;
- Immigrant Food is an advocacy platform that helps immigrants by gathering people around communal tables. Working with local NGO impact partners, it develops solutions that integrate missions with making money from delicious meals, through an innovative sign-up Engagement Menu. These restaurants also offer facilities for training volunteers, as well as citizenship lecturers and English classes.
Replace and Repurpose for Sustainable Innovation
Replace: Although many social initiatives rely on sophisticated equipment and high-speed Internet, others are distinctly low-tech. A good example is clearing landmines. Killing and maiming innocent passers-by in more than sixty countries all over the world, these killer ground-traps also prevent communities from growing crops and seeking water.
Often poverty-stricken, landmine removal requires sophisticated technology and expensive equipment, together with trained sniffer dogs, whose weight could easily trigger lethal explosions. However, Dutch product designer Bart Weetjens found an amazing replacement solution to this problem: he trains rats to sniff out land mines.
This Buddhist priest founded APOPO – a humanitarian organization in Tanzania that trains African giant pouched rats (aka HeroRATs) to identify TNT in landmines. And that’s not all: these HeroRATs can also pick out TB-positive sputum samples, speeding up tuberculosis treatment. Currently, this social initiative is exploring how scent-detecting rats could solve other social challenges, ranging from brain disorders to wildlife trafficking.
Repurpose: Pharmaceutical scientist Victoria Hale set up the Institute for One World Health (iOWH), scouring pharma lab inventories for drugs rated as unsuitable, unusable, and/or unable to generate profits.
She believed that at least some of them could be used to fight endemic diseases (like black fever, a fly-borne disease that kills 30,000 people each year in rural India and East Africa, infecting half a million more. She identified an out-of-production drug called paromomycin and persuaded the Indian government to run clinical trials, after which this life-saving drug was made available to black fever patients.
Takeaway: Whatever your professional expertise, you can make at least one small corner of the world a better place – and still keep your bottom line in the black. That’s because doing good is a really great business!