For the past seven years, I’ve worked full time at writing books and articles, speaking and teaching about people who are doing good in the world. Almost everyone I meet inspires me with the good they do. Yet, there is a recurring theme in the social impact world that drives me bonkers: the message from some that “you’re doing good wrong.”
Let’s agree from the start that there are charlatans in our ranks. For my show, I’ve now interviewed more than 1,100 people. I’ve come across a few people whose idea of doing good is thin but only one or two—much less than 1%–that I would, in hindsight, call charlatans. Of course, I try my best to screen them out before they get on my show. Still, my take is that most people running social enterprises, making impact investments, guiding nonprofits and making philanthropic gifts are both smart and well-intentioned.
From small social enterprises to large nonprofits, I find that people have clear, written theories of change and that they are gathering data to measure both activities and outcomes. They hold themselves to account because their donors and investors expect or require them to. In other words, the economics of social good work.
Still, too often, I hear criticisms of the way other people do good. Social entrepreneurs and impact investors, for instance, have often in my presence made the argument that for-profit economics are more scalable and sustainable than nonprofit economics.
Let’s subject that hypothesis to just a bit of scrutiny.
Is it more sustainable than the Catholic Church, founded nearly 2,000 years ago? According to the World Atlas, not one for-profit business has been around that long.
If you don’t like using a religion as an example of a nonprofit, how about the United Way? It reports serving 61 million people in 40 countries in 2017, working to reduce poverty and improve public health. I’m not aware of any for-profit social enterprise doing good at that scale.
The fact is, nonprofits are sustainable and, in general, have admirable track records. They are led by people who are as committed to impact as any social entrepreneur or impact investor.
Another frequent target of criticism is Blake Mycoskie’s Tom’s Shoes, which famously launched with a mantra of Buy One Give One. Early on, the company recognized that giving away shoes it competed unfairly with local producers of shoes and adapted its approach to source the shoes it gives away in the local market where possible. In a more significant shift, in 2018, the company refocused most of its giving on the fight to end gun violence. Where does the money go? To a variety of nonprofits.
Bill Gates, often lauded for his social impact, is also a frequent target of criticism. Perhaps, for the most famous philanthropist in the world, it is to be expected. One criticism that has been leveled is that by virtue of the scale of his philanthropy, he needn’t and doesn’t seek engagement from the local communities he hopes to serve.
Tell that to Rotary International. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of Rotary and am occasionally paid to speak at Rotary events.) Under Gates’ personal direction and ongoing involvement, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with the global service organization and its 1.2 million members in clubs in virtually every country on the planet to support the fight to eradicate polio.
Those Rotarians scattered around the world live in the countries where polio is still endemic or has only recently been eradicated by ongoing vaccination programs. Rotary provides the Gates Foundation with a two-way communication path to ensure that the work funded by the Gates Foundation and supported by Rotary volunteers is executed in a way that engages local communities, including local political and religious leaders. The primary implementation partners are UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
The fight to eradicate polio is as grassroots as it is global, and it is exactly that strategic combination that has allowed the team to reduce polio cases by 99.99% since the mid-1980s.
It is important to note that critics play an important part in the evolution of social impact efforts. Without critics, would TOM’s have evolved its giving so substantially? Perhaps not. Still, it is notoriously easy to be a critic. It is much more difficult to do good well. All the impact players I know have a common goal: do good better.