Five years of five percent
Thick has been donating 5% of our revenue to charity since our inception. We are about to reach two milestones: five years of doing it and our first $500,000 donated.
This post is a reflection on why we did it and what it has meant to our business.
The back story
About six years ago, I stepped out of a stable job and great role at one of Australia’s biggest digital agencies to start something, but I wasn’t all that sure what.
During my final weeks, I learnt that Adam, an ex-colleague, had begun to do his own thing in a studio in Collingwood. Over breakfast one day, we decided we should sit next to each other for a while and see what happened.
Initially, we were just a pair of sole traders in the same room, but pretty quickly we were collaborating on everything. Adam designed things, I wrote some code, we took on some big projects and worked hard.
In the first 6 months, we spent a fair portion of our days in our local coffee shop, drinking black coffee and talking about life. One day Adam pitched an idea about starting an agency based on doing good. He told me to read the New Capitalist Manifesto and pretty soon our new agency, Thick, took its first steps.
My career started in disability, but since building my first graphical menu in MS-DOS, I’d always loved coding. When the internet became a thing, I began creating web applications and wanted to make that my day job. At the time it felt like I was choosing an intellectual challenge over helping people day to day.
15 years later, I’d more or less given up on doing ‘good’ at work — or at least having the sort of direct impact I used to. I loved (still love) writing code, building logic and creating elegant solutions. It’s rewarding work, but very different to the kinds of rewards I got from directly helping people with disability have a better day.
When we started to talk about Thick, the idea of integrating a deeper purpose into my day job was pretty compelling.
I’d never been uncharitable, but I had a disorganised and inconsistent relationship with giving. If a compelling cause came up, I would give something. It was entirely random and not very generous.
My wife and I had read The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer, a deeply affecting and brilliantly rational argument that donating money is effective and something we should all do more of.
Before Thick made any money, Adam and I committed to donating 5% of whatever we earned to charity. This provided us with a ‘doing good’ insurance policy — no matter what, every day we existed we’d be making a positive change.
The business bit
We weren’t naive to the fact that there is a significant difference in pledging 5% of revenue, as opposed to share of profit. As a fledgling little agency, giving 5% away when you are strapped in to an income roller coaster certainly has had its moments.
Despite the challenges, holding onto our commitment, no matter what, has created a level of pride and attachment. It’s become a demonstrable heart of our promise to build a different kind of business. Nothing worth doing is going to be easy.
We started Thick to have a positive effect; it’s not an add-on. When times get rough, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that this is part of ‘success’, there is no point just getting by as a business without impact — that’s not Thick, it’s something else.
Effect on team
This year we began giving each staff member $5,000 to donate to a charity of their choice.
We did this for a number of reasons:
- Working at Thick means you are inside a business that only banks 95% of what it earns, which trickles down to everyone’s salaries or perks or the un-renovated studio we inhabit. We all share in a slightly smaller pie.
- Thick has always been about establishing shared meaning and shared purpose. Our collective impact should represent our collective values, not just those of the founders.
- Giving preferences tie into our innermost self. When it’s someone’s turn to nominate a charity, they give a little speech and write a note explaining why it matters to them. It helps us know and understand each other.
The first round of staff nomination has had a great effect; it’s probably exceeded our expectations. There have been some tears shed and some quieter, meaningful moments.
Singer argues that giving is in our nature, there is no doubt that participating in the act of giving is very different to just knowing it’s happening on your behalf.
Effect on clients
Our clients are obviously key to any donation happening; they are funding us and funding the giving.
Having a strong commitment helps build great relationships. More often than not, we fulfil our mission by ensuring our clients fulfil theirs, which means we are all in it for more than a project fee.
The reception to our giving plan has always been warm. Sometimes it’s quiet, just a small proof point that we walk the walk. Other times it’s something our clients care a lot about and are really engaged in.
The life your business can save
Your business exists in a context — one in which we have wiped out 60% of our wildlife, in which we are irreversibly destroying our biosphere, in which people experience extreme poverty and inequality.
The health of your business is not an adequate goal. Keeping people employed sounds noble, but it’s not enough. A business that is not contributing to a better future is literally worthless; it keeps taking at a time we can least afford.
Every business should have better social and environmental outcomes baked into Business as Usual. Some businesses can do this in a very physical and tangible way; service-based businesses can still achieve impact, but it’s often harder to see the result.
The vast majority of enterprise businesses already have sophisticated giving programs, but they should always strive for more.
It’s critical that small and medium businesses come to the table — we represent a sizeable chunk of GDP. What we do has a big impact.
There are lots of rational reasons to act well, but most people reading this will just know that it matters and they should act.
From our experience, the gains greatly outweigh any little pains along the way. Do it.
P.S. We’re giving a little something extra this Christmas
Right now, our clients are helping us pass the $500,000 mark. Find out more at philthewallet.com