Good intentions aren't enough. Sometimes, in our effort to do good, we actually do bad.
This truth is often amplified when our efforts to do good are taken overseas. In a manner akin to neocolonialism, scores of rich Westerners find themselves parachuting into poor countries they know nothing about to offer 'solutions' they've thought even less about.
The shortcomings of traditional charity/aid structures are well documented, so let's instead focus on what works. In particular, let's dive into how we can leverage our businesses to create sustainable change in the world's most difficult places — the areas where innovative solutions are most desperately needed.
Approximately 400 million people across the globe are currently trapped in extreme poverty — and sadly, this statistic remains unchanged since 1990. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is one such country affected by this alarming statistic. Today, more than 70% of the nation's inhabitants are living in poverty, and 5.5 million people have died as a consequence of the world's deadliest conflict since World War II .
The country also has an omnipresent aid industry, yet, despite the billions of dollars being spent every year, things aren't getting better.
The unfortunate truth is that you just can't charity a place like the Congo out of crisis. This is what inspired me to build a company called Mavuno that promotes sustainable change in the world's most difficult places.
Use Business to Catalyze Social Impact
We shouldn't turn a blind eye to the tremendous suffering that has transpired in the Congo, and we should empathize deeply with the millions of people who have died or been displaced from their homes. However, we must spend more energy recognizing the incredible assets that still exist in conflict-affected areas.
Rather than plugging what Westerners would deem to be material gaps with short-term material assistance, create a model that optimizes the assets communities already have to generate wealth. Use business as a tool that creates social impact — and not in the buy-one-give-one sense. Bake social impact into the DNA of your business model so that as your business scales, so does your impact.
For example, in my organization's efforts to end extreme poverty in the eastern Congo, we've utilized a systems approach to strengthen regional value chains. In addition to micro agribusinesses, we will invest in small- to medium-sized enterprises that capture more components of the value chain, produce capital inflows, export finished products to the shelves of international markets, and create downstream demand for farmers.This includes businesses that sell dried fruit, juice, coffee, cocoa, and more.
Other enterprises working in the area address the needs of those in multidimensional poverty with market-based solutions. One, for example, tackles the regional lack of electrification by creating a pay-as-you-go solar energy product for off-grid households. The growth and profitability of this company not only creates jobs, but also provides clean, affordable energy to families on their way out of extreme poverty.
Collectively, this activity is sustainably benefitting smallholder farmers in ways that charity never could — and it's a model I would encourage you to follow with your own company.
Here are four things you can do to bake social impact into the DNA of your business in a healthy way:
1. Take it seriously. You put a lot of thought into your business model, from your supply chain to your customer acquisition strategy and beyond. Don't leave your brain at the door when it comes time to do good. Don't just tack on the social impact component as a feel-good brand enhancement. Recognize that social problems are often incredibly complex and are best served by the business acumen you're already deploying in every other aspect of your business.
2. Involve the people you seek to serve. If you don't deeply understand the place and population you seek to serve, and if they're not involved in crafting the solution, you're probably better off just not doing whatever it is you're about to do. For example, don't 'save' Uganda if you don't know anything about Uganda — especially if you don't plan to involve any Ugandan people in your plot to save them.
Whether it's domestic or international social impact work, the population intended to benefit from an intervention must be the driving force behind the intervention. This increases local ownership, sustainability, and the overall likelihood of success.
3. Create social impact with your core business model. Construct your core business model in such a way that it becomes your primary vehicle for profit and social impact. Any commercial business can find its own unique ways to do this.
If you're a grocery store, maybe you focus on an innovative way to expand your chain into food deserts while remaining profitable. If you're a roofing company, maybe you focus on being a source of employment for ex-felons and incorporate HR practices that will maximally benefit your employees. You get the idea.
Ultimately, you should be looking to maximize value across social and environmental bottom lines in addition to the financial. Business is about value creation, so ensure you're creating value in a holistic sense and not detracting value in any way. You will likely find that this actually enhances your financial bottom line over the long term.
4. Assess your impact. We mentioned earlier that sometimes, in our effort to do good, we actually do bad. You can't know that unless you're evaluating your impact. What does social impact look like for you, and how will you measure it? Don't just do good; prove that it was actually good with data. Then, use those insights (just like you do in your business) to get even better at doing good.
Social impact isn't something to take lightly, lightheartedly, or halfheartedly. There are hundreds of millions of people in the world trapped in extreme poverty, and with some deep thought and innovation, your business can be a part of the solution to one of the greatest crises of our time.