Social businesses, like charities, often have lofty ideals about changing the world through their mission, message and impact. Press material, websites and Twitter bios are often swarmed with rhetoric like “changing the world,” “making a difference” and “join the movement.”
Regardless of how the overuse of these sayings can prove meaningless, mission statements should reflect the intentions of the organization itself. In a recent interview with Sissy Rooney, the founder of the UK-based social enterprise Street Style Surgery, she urged aspiring social entrepreneurs to write their mission statements right off the bat. She had hers posted above the computer from which we Skyped.
“We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems,” a current Apple executive told the New York Times in January in a piece about American job loss and foreign manufacturing. “Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” That speaks mountains. While I would consider the “best product” one that takes in mind problems in its home country, that is, unemployment, traditional corporations, of course, don’t operate like that. Of course, the very idea of a “social business” conjures up ideas of good intentions—no matter what. The quote speaks to the notion that a sentence or two can encapsulate how the main goal, or “obligation,” of a business is engrained into day-to-day operations.
Because they’re unquantifiable, how do you judge the mostly good intentions of social businesses and social enterprises? Do we even need to or is it impact that’s more important?
I’ve been writing about social businesses and working for SocialBusiness.org for over a year now, but even before then, I’d been skeptical about the relationship between intentions—whether good or bad—and outcome. As a wide-eyed undergraduate in international development studies, I was full of good intentions and I thought that my zealousness would be reflected in everything I studied. But regardless of intentions, bad things happen. Unintentionally or not. Also, intentions portrayed to those outside of the organization aren’t necessarily the intentions that dictate business behavior. How and why do social businesses negotiate intentions into their business models and daily practices?
Let’s take a look at TOMS, a socially driven for-profit, and a company that some consider paramount when it comes to the successful integration of money and meaning. I’ll use TOMS as an example because the brand is exceptionally popular, especially among students. The idea for TOMS started when Blake Mycoskie was traveling and met Argentinian children with no shoes. Since then, he’s been providing shoes for children all over the world through, well, selling. Now, I’ll save my complaints of consumerism for another piece but here’s one way to think about it: Is buying a pair of shoes that donates a pair better than buying a pair of shoes that doesn’t? And what’s the alternative?
There are countless criticisms of TOMS. In 2010, GoodIntents.org posted a succinct point-form criticism called “TOMS Shoes: Good Marketing – Bad Aid.” In a similar vein, Kelsey Timmerman of Where Am I Wearing? points out that TOMS products are made in China, and thus don’t create jobs for local communities. A free pair of shoes won’t last long. Yes, it means children are in a better position to attend school, but the impact of a well-paying job, water infrastructure or clean and reliable energy would undoubtedly have more of an impact. “Yes, someone giving you a pair of shoes would sure be nice if you didn’t have a pair,” wrotes Timmerman in a blog post. “But a job that allows parents to send their kids to school could change your family tree forever.” Timmerman uses the example of SoleRebels, a company SocialBusiness.org covered in 2011:
Let’s say that every worker at SoleRebels has five kids (the fertility rate of Ethiopia). The workers send all five kids to school and since they have an education they don’t grow up to be shoemakers. They do something that pays better and they send their five kids to school. A job, a good job, has an exponential impact. Within a few generations the 100 jobs at SoleRebels have impacted tens of thousands of people. Within six generations, the jobs have impacted millions. Now imagine if SoleRebels sold as many shoes as TOMS. This isn’t just life-changing stuff, this is possibly country-changing, poverty-fighting stuff.
The YouTube video “A Day Without Dignity” spun off of the TOMS “A Day Without Shoes” publicity stunt is a dig-deep take on how donations create a tremendous amount job loss. According to the video, which was put on by GoodIntents.org, handing out free goods out-competes local markets. What’s more, used-clothing imports to Africa caused 50% of the increase in unemployment between 1981 to 2000.
This isn’t to say that TOMS didn’t (and doesn’t) have good intentions, for the business, for the people who receive the donations, and for the world. But intentions don’t predict outcome or prevail over the messiness of complexities like local government, natural disasters, corruption, etc. It’s unscrupulous to ignore mutated results even when someone is sincerely trying to “do the right thing.”
Intentions, too, shift. They transform and they mutate. Clearly, good intentions aren’t enough to create on-the-ground impact. What’s necessary is, yes, purpose, but also checks and balances, transparency and the willingness to admit, perhaps, that your outcomes have overpowered your intentions.
What are the needs of the community you are serving? Have you asked them? Have you considered all the parties involved? Who and what will be affected? It’s about looking beyond mere “giving” and toward partnership.
Peppering your messaging with intention-revealing buzz words can have an impact on engaging an audience that might not otherwise care about your cause, however, there runs a risk of losing integrity. And integrity in social business, by the nature of the field, is crucial to creating an image with the public, doing well financially and serving local communities, which should have been the point of creating the company in the first place.