Thursday, October 27, 2011

Socially Responsible Business

I'm headed off to the annual open gathering of Social Venture Network (SVN). It's a membership organization made up of the leading social entrepreneurs, both nonprofit and for-profit.

Businesses don't have to join a network or club to be socially responsible. This group is more like a tribe to me--a bunch of motivated, aspirational misfits trying to do good through business. Some do very well. Some fail miserably. Some are simply stubbornly persistent and do ok but don't have the impact they envision.

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's, Judy Wicks from the White Dog Cafe, the "radical" Van Jones (so radical he's advocating for corporate subsidies to bring energy jobs to inner cities...wait, that's capitalism!), Josh Knauer of RhizaLabs (very cool mapping software), and a long list of others.

One of my favorite companies represented is Greyston Bakery. Their motto is "we don't hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people". They take 100% of their profits and put it into the Greyston Foundation, which provides supportive services to their employees.

And when there's a job opening, they hire the first person through the door, no matter what. That's true commitment, and they've changed a lot of lives doing that.

There's a balance between doing good while making money; sometimes I've gotten that balance wrong, or applied the good intentions in the wrong places. Mission Research was designed to be a socially responsible business, and we got some of it right. Not all of it.

A lot of businesses meet the standard simply because it makes sense. Healthcare for your employees to they aren't at risk of financial ruin for a health issue sets your employees at ease. That extra level of care also encourages employee loyalty.

Spend less if you can on energy consumption. Don't pollute your neighbor's air and water (hmm, sounds like the Golden Rule is socially responsible). Make something that actually helps people, like a better wheelchair, or software that enables the helpers, or a better lightbulb, or a way to make it easier for people to communicate.

If you profit while hurting others, that's not socially responsible. It's unethical and wrong.

Google's unofficial motto is 'don't be evil'. I don't think that's good enough and focuses on the wrong side of the equation.

Be good.

And do well while doing good. Most startups I know help people in some way, and I'm really honored to get to witness as they try to make big things happen to change the world in positive ways.

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