In 2006, Blake Mycoskie, a scruffy thirty-something reality television star, traveled to Argentina. Playing soccer with barefoot children in impoverished communities, Blake left Argentina with a simple goal: to return and provide shoes for 250 children in need. An entrepreneur at heart (Blake already attempted five small businesses), Blake’s enthusiasm for his project was infectious. Instead of 250 pairs of shoes, Blake and friends returned to Argentina with 10,000 pairs of shoes, all created and constructed within a year. With this overnight and unexpected success, TOM’S Shoes and the One for One movement was born. The One for One business concept was simple: for every pair of shoes purchased, a pair of shoes would be given to a child in need, and in September 2010, TOM’S gave away its millionth pair of shoes. Within four and a half years, TOM’S won the 2007 People’s Design Award at Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards and Mycoskie became a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. Mycoskie, billing himself as the Chief Shoe Giver, found himself in high demand for speaking engagements at prestigious conferences like TED X and South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.
Mycoskie’s other small business ventures were much more modest in their successes. There was the attempted all Reality TV channel, which Rupert Murdoch put out of business with his Fox Reality Channel, a door to door laundry service, and a billboard company. While Mycoskie has the drive and creativity of an entrepreneur, it was the beauty of the One for One movement that launched his most successful business, now ranked on Fast Company’s top ten most innovative companies list. Realizing that this is more than a company, it’s an entirely new business model, Mycoskie wants TOM’S to own the One for One model, and in June he announced the next phase of TOM’S: eyewear. For every pair of high end fashion glasses bought, a pair of glasses will be given to children in need.
Not a micromanager, Mycoskie keeps a schedule that allows time for journaling on his houseboat and plenty of international travel, including the frequent shoe drop trips. A self proclaimed philosopher/ dreamer, his first book, Start Something That Matters is set to be released on September 6. His challenge for the reader: “Love your work, work for what you love and change the world, all at the same time.” As ambitious as that sounds, his message is hitting home with the current generation of entrepreneurs, CEOs, brand marketers, and most importantly, consumers.
Mycoskie is what many call a social entrepreneur. With the troubling economic times and the changes that nonprofit organizations are facing (tax deductions for nonprofit donations are set to be limited, charitable giving has been at an all time low for the past three years, and cuts in funding for important volunteer programs like Americorps are said to be coming), social entrepreneurship companies are on the rise. Adding to the changing charitable times is the appeal of cause marketing with a compelling story. It seems that businesses may finally re-think profit for profit alone. With terms like social entrepreneur, microfinance, microcredit, and microsavings now ubiquitous in socially conscious circles, a blurring of the lines between traditional nonprofit organizations and for profit businesses has allowed creative thinkers to reconsider how they produce, sell, and search for significance.
One of the first social entrepreneurial organizations, Ashoka, defines social entrepreneurs: “They are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Social entrepreneurs are not content to just give a fish, or teach how to fish; they will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”
In light of this redefinition of social problems and solutions, Ashoka moved away from the traditional acronyms and words associated with philanthropic efforts. NGO (non-governmental organization) and NPO (non-profit organization) are defined by the prefix, by the NON, by what they are not. Instead of focusing on this absence of government support or funding, many creative philanthropists are coining new terms like “citizen sector” or “citizen organization”. These change agents believe putting the care of society and its problems in the hands of creative people who are invested in the wellbeing of the community is the truest and most empowering form of citizenship,.
It is an important shift for a philanthropic and creative community like Chattanooga to consider. With a reputation as a non-profit haven and a history of philanthropic founders, Chattanooga is home to over 1000 non-profits. By comparison, Nashville claims around 600. A number of strong, well funded foundations such as Lyndhurst, Benwood and Maclellan have allowed the city’s charitable efforts to rely heavily on traditional means of non-profit fundraising: grants, donors, and government support. However, with the looming changes to tax deductions for 501c3 donations and the continuing decline in donations, Chattanooga’s nonprofit community must consider how long these traditional models can support the number of nonprofits the city boasts. And, even without the economic cutbacks, as an increasingly creative community develops among Chattanooga’s Millenials, perhaps there are better solutions for the problems previously left to nonprofits to solve. If the creative community could remove the dichotomy of nonprofit vs. for profit, and more importantly, the erroneous perception of the haves and the have nots, those who help and those who need help, both could perhaps learn from and empower the other. Instead of top down relationships of mentor to mentee, donor to client, establishing a peer to peer relationship that equally values the lessons of both sides of the economic aisle could create a more creative and mutually beneficial climate of social entrepreneurship.
Jessica Jackley, founder of KIVA, an online community that allows lenders to make small loans to entrepreneurs throughout the world, relates her own dilemma with her view of the haves and have nots and her inner angst over their situation. She tells of being a sensitive, impressionable child in Sunday School and learning that she had a mission to care for the “least of these”, yet being confounded at another Biblical reference that “the poor will always be with you”. As she grew older, her desire to help began to feel like a sense of guilt and confusion at this conundrum. She reflected on this dilemma in what would become an all time favorited Ted Talk:
"In general I got this sort of idea that the poor in the world lived lives that were wrought with suffering and sadness, devastation, hopelessness. And, after a while, I developed what I think many of us do where I started to feel bad every time I heard about them. I started to feel guilty for my own relative wealth, because I wasn’t doing more, apparently, to make things better. And so naturally, I started to distance myself. I stopped listening to their stories quite as closely as I had before. I gave of my time and my money. I gave when solutions were on sale. The truth be told , I was giving out of that place, not out of a genuine place, not out of a genuine place of hope and excitement to help and of generosity. I was purchasing something. I was buying my right to go on with my day and not necessarily be bothered by this bad news. And I think the way that we go through that sometimes can sort of disembody a group of people, individuals out there in the world. So as I did this, and as I think many of us do this, we kind of buy our distance we kind to buy our right to go on with our day. I think that exchange can actually get in the way of the very thing that we want most. It can get in the way of our desire to really be meaningful and useful in another person’s life, and in short to love."
Jackley’s question of how to help was answered when she heard about the work of Muhammad Yunus. When Jessica heard Yunus, Nobel Prize Winner and founder of the Grameen Bank, speak of the extraordinary success of microcredit, she realized she could impact the poor in a way that respects their dignity. As Jackley discovered, “The best way for people to change their lives is for them to have control and do it in a way that is best for them.” This epiphany inspired Jackley to launch KIVA, and within one year the organization loaned $500,000 to small business people in at risk communities.
Yunus asserts that now is the best time to re-frame how communities think about charity. “The current financial crisis makes it very clear that the system that we have isn’t really working and this is the right time for us to undo things and build them in a new way," Yunus said in his latest publication.
On a local level, traditional nonprofits and budding entrepreneurs should reconsider their method of funding their work or starting a business. For entrepreneurs, the success of cause marketing is worth noting. Who knows if a small shoe company called TOM'S out of Santa Monica, California would have seen such rapid growth without the compelling stories and the word of mouth marketing of its consumers and employees? TOM’S staff is comprised of a large number of volunteer interns who are incredibly loyal to the brand.
“The greatest competitive advantage is to allow your employees to be part of something. Something bigger than what you’re doing”, says Mycoskie. He makes sure to include his employees on the shoe drop trips, keeping them invested in the mission.
For local nonprofits looking at the impending budget cuts, social entrepreneurship opportunities may be a valid means of support. Executive Director of Chattanooga’s Center for Non-Profits, Sheila Moore, says local nonprofits need to make sure they diversify their sources of funding. Though not every nonprofit lends itself to creative social entrepreneurship, including that option in the funding model is a healthy step towards sustainability.
In Chattanooga, there is a growing awareness of the importance of creativity in funding and problem solving. The Chalmers Center for Economic Development is training community leaders in Africa in microfinance education focused on savings and credit unions. Using the natural community connection of the church in Africa, Chalmers equips church leaders with holistic approaches to social, spiritual and financial needs. Locally, Chalmers Center launched a similar training program for savings-focused microfinance opportunities for Chattanooga’s economically disadvantaged.
With the lofty Millenium Development Goals, and Yunus’ belief that we can one day see a world where poverty is finally alleviated, many are wondering if it is really possible. On a global scale, the creativity of social entrepreneurship and non-traditional means of social change has been welcomed by developing and developed communities alike. On a local level, Chattanooga’s philanthropic minded want to learn from the global successes of innovators like Yunus, Jackley and Mycoskie. If communities embrace creativity and new solutions, can labels like consumer and donor, nonprofit and for profit fall away and leave a society creatively working for economic progress and social good? Or, is it as Jackley, KIVA founder was told, “The poor will always be with you”?
As we work towards the answer to that riddle, the words of Bono at the 2006 National Prayer Breakfast resonate. Challenging the audience to take on the fight against the African AIDS crisis, he said, “Look, whatever thoughts you have about God, who He is or if He exists, most will agree that, if there is a God, He has a special place for the poor. In fact, the poor are where God lives.”
It seems science supports Bono’s supposition, if the presence of God is evident in compassionate and generous behavior. In a UC Berkeley study of social class and prosocial behavior called “Having Less, Giving More”, the researchers found that the economically and socially marginalized actually exhibit more charitable and “prosocial” behavior traits". Despite the fact that a low socioeconomic status is associated with many social threats and a loss of control, “lower class individuals proved to be more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful compared to their upper class counterparts”. They exhibited far more empathy and compassion. The local community and the global community need to approach the poor not as those with their hands out, but as those with their hearts open, who have much to teach us through their charitable example.
For now, as communities struggle to find solutions to global and local poverty, open minds can embrace the lessons learned from the most charitable members of our society, and practice creativity in the way communities work together for a more socially just future.