Tuning in: the business of doing good

Hi everyone and thanks for coming. I’m Elizabeth Eagen — a program officer in the Information Program at the Open Society Foundations, and, for the next four months, on sabbatical, doing a research, writing and study project on the business of doing good. I’m researching how companies are putting a profit model to work doing something other than maximizing dollars. I’m curious about places and companies that conceive their business as serving some other mission alongside the buying and selling of things, and that seek to appeal to you and me because of it and for it. And I want to know how this affects long-standing objectives of civil society.

Maybe we’ve been here before. B-corps exist, and so does corporate social responsibility. But I’m noticing — and perhaps you are too — that my feeds are newly filled with branding exercises trying to appeal to something else. Buy these shoes, they come from a transparent supply chain. Sell your handmade tables here — our makers are our clients, and we help them, and we help them exercise their political voice, too. Shop in this location; you’re buying local and… good. I kind of enjoy it. I like that companies want to work hard to find out what makes me make choices. But liking it doesn’t make it good. Liking just means I’m interested, and I want to know more about what we’re really getting into here. What does it mean to try to drive profit and mission in the same direction? Is there a difference in quality and character of the positive impact created by CSRs, Social Entrepreneurship and NGOs?

So here are some questions for the companies: How do you choose your constituents? How do you decide what issues match them and your brand? How do you make that part of the DNA of the company so that it survives a founder, or a change in CEO?

And here are some questions for the consumers: what’s new about what we’re seeing? What do we want to see in order to verify that this is good? What makes something good?

And some questions for the civil society actors, who’ve been seeking to do some good for a while: what kind of roles and relationships do you see for civil society aims in the rise of social entrepreneurship?

And finally, some questions for the employees. I think (obviously) that the internet makes it increasingly simpler to collapse the distance between something’s production and its story. For example, it’s now easier than ever to try to sell me one pair of shoes for slightly more than another pair, because you might be able to tell me its story — who made it, under what conditions, and how you’ll donate another pair if I buy them. But doing commerce on a scale and platform requires some serious talent, and serious offering to the scarce and highly-talented programmers needed to make it work. So here’s a further question: are we creating (or re-creating) a new form of work, when we try to give someone a mission as they go about their job? What does a mission-driven workforce do for you?

All this and probably more to come, change, and redesign as I go through this project. I hope you’ll stick around. And if you’re a social entrepreneur, an activist CEO, an opinionated leader of a civil society organization with thoughts on the business of doing good, or someone else who wants to talk to me about this — reach out in the comments and let’s talk.