Social Entrepreneurs: Friends or Foes?

Social Entrepreneurs: Friends or Foes?

Earlier this year, Lisa Novick and I launched a social entrepreneurial company together. Our online company provides tools and resources that help parents, schools, and community and faith groups promote volunteerism among young kids. We thought it was a way to do good while building a sustainable company.

Little did we know that our do-good intentions would be rebuffed rather than embraced by some who seemed like natural allies.

For years, we'd dreamed of creating a company like Newman's Own that donates 100 percent of its net profit to charity. The dream goes something like this: produce a product of value; aggressively bring it to market using traditional marketing, public relations, and advertising tools; earn a profit; cover all operational expenses; and donate the profits to charity. We saw it as the quintessential win-win-win for the company, employees, and the community.

Of course, such a model isn't for the faint of heart. The idea of giving 100 percent of the net profits to charity is pretty extraordinary, and not all social entrepreneurs are willing to go that far. So you can imagine how surprised we were when a leader of a philanthropic organization commented, "You seem like another consumer company trying to sell us something."

Is it possible that after all these years a gigantic wall of distrust still exists between nonprofits and companies with a socially responsible mission? Is it possible that wariness of entrepreneurial practices still trumps inventive thinking that has the potential to bring about meaningful social change? History is full of examples of innovation being met with concern or doubt. Consider the Wright Brothers, the microwave oven, or the Internet. Skepticism has its place. But how much more does a do-good company have to do to prove its trustworthiness and value?

Our hope is that the philanthropic community will point to our work and the work of other social entrepreneurs testing the waters as valid, even bold examples of social innovation. Our hope is that the sector will encourage companies to branch out in new directions in their effort to benefit social causes. And our hope is that we won't be deemed less committed to positive change for using words like "customer" or for embracing marketing, advertising, and public relations practices.

We like the nimble pace and less restricted structure of a private company, and we have no plans to file for 501(c)(3) status or compete for public funding to help drive our mission. Our survival rests squarely on our ability to create mutually beneficial exchanges with our customers. Risky? Absolutely. But the thrill of entrepreneurism and the hope of giving away millions excite and motivate us.

So, please think of us as a friend who is as eager to make a difference in the world as much you are. And at the risk of seeming too brazen in our social entrepreneurism, we encourage you to decide for yourself.

Julie Chapman and Lisa Novick are co-founders of YesKidzCan! and have spent the past twenty years working in the philanthropic sector as consultants, fundraisers, and volunteers.