Doing Good is nice. Having food on the table is even better.
From time to time, people ask me about my decision to start a Social Business… a for-profit business. The funny thing to me is, people used to ask me the same questions when I founded a non-profit. What was I trying to achieve anyway? Why do it like this? The answers to these questions have changed fundamentally as I’ve moved from the non-profit to the for-profit world, but the philosophical underpinnings have always remained the same. I want to do good things.
Moving into the Social Business world means that I can do good things, for all of the right reasons, and still feed my daughter something a little more substantial than moonbeams and rainbows.
Before my little girl was born, I didn’t have too much of a problem with living paycheck-to-paycheck (my parents sure did, but that’s the subject of another essay); being “location-independent” was more relational to my empty bank account than my overflowing coffers. But still I plugged along, because I wanted to make an impact. I wanted my work to matter for more than a paycheck.
But somewhere in my early 30s, even before my daughter was born, I began to figure out that the work was actually far more meaningful when I had a full stomach at the end of the day. You can only save so many other people’s souls when you’ve eaten nothing but Ramen all week while the landlord is sending you passive-aggressive nasty-gram texts demanding the rent.
When I came across the concept of Benefit Corporations, I felt like the seas had parted. When the day comes that I get to meet the person responsible for this, I want to shake their hand.
I remember the days of heated debates about “doing good for its own sake”; can a person really be truly altruistic if they are benefitting, too? My claim is that we need to shift the conversation away from that entirely, and toward this: What good are you doing anybody if you aren’t able to take decent care of yourself at the same time?
Really, what change am I affecting in the world if I’m waking up in cold sweats every night because my daughter is sick and I can’t afford the medicine?
So I run a Social Business. I don’t pretend that for-profit business is a guarantee of sustainability- I’m not that naïve. It’s incredibly risky and many startups don’t make it. But I ask you to stop and consider the non-profit model in comparison. (And yes, I’ve worked in non-profits. I’ve even founded one, for goodness sake, so I believe I have some idea what I’m talking about.) Non-profits spend a ridiculously large amount of their time in fundraising, and a ridiculously small amount of time actually administering their programming. This is exhausting for everyone, including the client population that is never guaranteed that the program will be around next year, and especially for the staff, who suffer from some of the highest burnout rates around. This, in my opinion, is a huge waste of good intention.
What if, instead, that purpose was funneled into something, that if successful, could then just continue to grow and grow? What if all of that energy was spent on actually doing good on a daily basis, without the need to panhandle? Yes, my non-profit peeps, I’m being harsh…
Indeed, Social Business is taking off like wildfire in places where non-profit work is historically present but falls short, like when it comes to empowering people in the developing world. (My own experience with starting a non-profit was in New Orleans in the months following Hurricane Katrina- certainly well meaning, but ultimately just not sustainable.)
So here I am today, advocating for Social Business. It’s so much more satisfying to wake up in the morning and know that my bills are paid AND my big heart is still engaged in my work. My daughter eats solid food instead of the stuff of my dreams.
Hillary Strobel is a content single mother, fierce learner and teacher, ardent lover of life, and ass-kickin’ President and CEO of a Social Enterprise, The Flyways, Inc. After a long and varied career in just about every kind of Liberal Arts field imaginable, and in every type of job position- volunteer, employee, entrepreneur, non-profit worker, and freelancer- she has decided to put her money where her mouth is and marry her two deepest passions: stories and social justice. The results have surpassed her wildest expectations.