There is an unmistakeable movement percolating right now around how the biggest, stickiest, peskiest problems in society are being addressed – the social innovation movement.
While a lot of the current debate is around how much government and what kind of government (I’ll leave that to the political pundits), I’ve been fascinated with the growing movement of businesses (yes, “big bad businesses”!) that are tackling complicated societal problems. Surprisingly, they aren’t doing it like a lot of other superficial, to-look-good-only corporate philanthropic initiatives – they are digging into the root of the issue because our problems in society are becoming core problems in their business. Many of them are also outperforming the prominent non-profits in the same arenas.
Yes, the motive for profit and the motive to solve a societal problem are becoming one in the same. No one has captured this movement better than Jason Saul. A couple of our board members have joined us in reading Saul’s Book, Social Innovation, Inc., and we’re excited to go meet up with him later this month.
From Saul’s book (and a few others), here are 8 of my favorite examples of social innovation businesses making a real impact:
- Healthcare | Drugs are really expensive, many times prohibitively so for poor families. Wal-Mart announced its $4 prescription drug program, resulting in billions of savings for customers. They even forced the hand of other pharmacies to lower their prices as well.
- Eye Care | A lot of people in the developing world have eyesight problems, diminishing their chance at a productive life. Now you can buy a pair of TOMS sunglasses, and someone in need gets medical treatment, prescription glasses, or sight-saving surgery. One pair of sunglasses for one pair of newly healthy eyes somewhere in the world.
- Recycling | So much trash and waste is generated from the manufacturing process. Coca-Cola launched a business that would raise awareness about recycling and reuse as much of its beverage packaging (think 100 billion bottles and cans per year) as possible. Get this: it takes 95% less energy to make a new can from recycled aluminum vs. new.
- Healthy Food Availability | There are numerous “food deserts” in the U.S. that can’t support a grocery store, and thus, people resort to eating unhealthy foods. Tesco, a huge food retailer in other parts of the world, launched its smaller-store template with fresh produce and ready-to-eat options in these long-ignored areas. People who shop there actually eat healthier.
- Job Creation | Of course, microfinance has arguably been one of the most tremendous models of social innovation in the last 20 years. For-profit banks making $10, $50, $100 microloans to entrepreneurs who end up succeeding in their business. Then the loan gets repaid and goes to the next recipient, often times 90%+ of the time.
- Education – High School | In one of the poorest cities in the country, Hartford public schools are in the pits. Traveler’s Insurance, founded in Hartford, had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars with little or no results. A new superintendent came onto the scene, partnering with Traveler’s and a few other local businesses to build an entire high school, High School, Inc. Hartford’s Insurance and Finance Academy, providing early exposure and training in the insurance and financial services industries. While the school is still new, Hartford’s high school students now have new connections and knowledge opportunities, and Traveler’s and other businesses have a built-in pipeline for new talent.
- Workforce Skill Training | In the fast-changing global economy, graduates often need expertise in a couple of different areas, not just one specialty. IBM created a new academic disciple called SSME (Service Science, Management, and Engineering) that is now taught in 250+ institutions worldwide. IBM puts in $100 million a year into this. They’re helping students build a more marketable skill set, and yes, they’re helping themselves find the talent they need in the new economy.
- Education – Primary School | Lots of school teachers don’t have enough supplies at the beginning of the school year. Many end up spending their own money buying what they need. In response, OfficeMax created a new program – A Day Made Better (ADMB). In October of every year, approximately 4,000 employee-volunteers visit targeted classrooms to surprise teachers and students with free supplies (typically $1,200 worth!). This was a way to raise awareness of the problem, help teachers out, provide a unique opportunity for their employee-volunteers, and also build a movement of passionately loyal teacher-customers.
What other examples of social innovation have you seen? Is the mixing of charity and profit motives dangerous, helpful, or both? Here at M121, we see ourselves as a social innovation organization – addressing extreme poverty through job creation, one life at a time.