20 Feb The Founder of Lean Volunteer on What it Means to be a Socially Responsible Company
My good friend Dave Meader, Ph.D., has been a business professor, consultant, and startup entrepreneur for universities, social enterprises, and tech companies. In 2014-2015, he traveled alone around the world for a year, visiting 28 countries in all. In 7 of those countries he offered volunteer business consulting services to socially responsible companies serving very low income communities. He is now writing a book called The Lean Volunteer: How to Travel the World and Do Good With Your Business Expertise, to help adventurous business professionals do the same thing – find a solid social enterprise in an exotic country, and help them deliver on their mission by improving their organizational capability.
In invited him to share some of his insights on what it means to be a socially responsible company in today’s world.
Aurora Meneghello: What do you do?
Dave Meader: I’ve been a business professor teaching MBAs about I.T. strategy, digital marketing, and design thinking, and now I consult for small socially responsible companies, mostly strategy and marketing. Most recently I’ve been traveling the world working with small social enterprises who support very low income communities, and offering pro bono business consulting in exchange for a fascinating personal adventure. It’s amazing how much one can grow by having a real authentic connection to folks in different cultures, working in radically different environments. And I’ve found that doing 3-6 week volunteer business consulting projects a perfect way to make those connections. I’ve also learned a lot about what “social enterprise” and “socially responsible business” means around the world, in countries like Vietnam, India, Uganda, and Morocco.
Aurora: That’s a term that gets used a lot, but in different ways. What do you mean by “socially responsible business”?
Dave: Good question! I had to grapple with that when I was the Director for the Center for Socially Responsible Business at Mills College in Oakland. Organizations used to be “a socially responsible company” almost as a sideline, donating money to nonprofits, or giving employees time off to do some local volunteering. What’s changed in the last 10 years is that the activity has moved from a sideline into the mainstream of the company bottom line. Now, a socially responsible for-profit company is one that makes profits from selling products or services that, in themselves, make a positive impact on some social or environmental area. A product example: several companies are making food products in edible containers. They make money by selling this innovative packaging, and at the same time reduce the amount of plastic refuse AND can put nutrients in the edible packaging itself, which can increase the nutritional value of the purchase. A service example: companies can commit to business practices around staffing that improve the quality of life for their employees. In fact, such companies can get certified as a B Corporation (B is for Benefit), which lets the world know they value social responsibility in a concrete way.
So, in the end, a social responsible for-profit corporation is one who makes money by intentionally creating, marketing, selling, and servicing products and services that have a positive impact on social or environmental issues. This idea is also going mainstream, with Michael Porter of Harvard Business School (and who came up with the idea of the Value Chain in the 1980s). He calls it “Shared Values”.
Aurora: What have you learned about socially responsible businesses from working with them around the world?
Dave: Lots! But let me just focus on two.
First, I learned that the problems of very low income communities can not, and never will, be solved by the old government and nonprofit model. There just isn’t enough capital, both financial and human, to “fix” poverty, and its causes. This means, for me, that for-profit companies have a critical role here. For-profit companies, as a class, have access to capital and management expertise that nonprofits and governments do not have. I also happen to believe that the problems of poverty in our world affect the affluent. One of the saddest experiences I had on my world trip was scuba diving in Bali, and having to navigate around all the plastic crap floating among the otherwise beautiful reefs. For anyone who spends time on the oceans, we’re killing it with all our human refuse. I’m not biologist, but that can’t be good for our survival. And so the world needs for profit companies to be socially responsible in ways that leverage the market. The big opportunity for corporations in higher income countries is to use their power to make that change.
Second, I learned that it’s not really all that difficult for companies to become more socially responsible in their products, services, and practices. Sometimes all it requires is to put that intention in strategy and design processes, and to say at the outset, “what and how can we do to make profit, serve our market and make the world a better place?” And then set “make the world a better place” as a guiding design principle. I really like Design Thinking, as a way to create products, services, policies and processes that not only truly excite the market but also attract higher revenues and lower costs. All of my consulting now infuses Design Thinking principles in my work with companies, and nonprofits.
Aurora: What can companies do now to become more socially responsible, in a way that’s also profitable?
Dave: Again, it’s about intention. The intention to “do good while doing good”, whatever that means for your company. And then making the intention really clear, really powerful, and really accepted and practiced around the organization. This requires an agreed upon change in philosophy in what you do, which will encounter resistance. Humans don’t like change, especially if you’re asking them to change from something they believe is successful. But if you can say, “what if our success is not a 10, but actually a 5. What could we do to make it a 10?” And then bring in a new criteria “improving our customers WHOLE lives, not just our product”. In Design Thinking, there’s a core principle that directs designers to find out not just what the customer wants with respect to a particular product, but in their whole lives. You can ask what do our customers dream about, aspire to, for themselves, for their families, for their communities?
Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace prize winner for starting microfinancing, told a story at a talk I went to that illustrates this. He was working with Dannon, the French company that makes yogurt. As he told the story, Dannon came to him asking what they could do to help the poor of Bangladesh, where Yunus was working. He suggested a yogurt product that the poor could afford and would provide nutrients they were missing in their diets. So Dannon went off with that intention, and came back with a product. Yunus said, “good product”, but the plastic container won’t work. It will create a huge pollution problem, and it adds 1-2 cents to the cost of the product that has no use to the consumer. So Dannon went back and designed an edible container, with nutrients in it. The consumer eats the yogurt, the eats the container. No garbage, and the customer gets the additional nutrients.
The key here, and for companies now, is to keep pushing hard on the intention and what the whole value to their customer is. Which means more than just surveys, focus groups, and other traditional market research. In most cases, it can mean shadowing customers in a non creepy way, to see how they live and use (and misuse) their product. And then taking that empathetic understanding back to the product or service (re)design conversation. This works also with services and with internal business processes.
So a great way to get started is to make explicit and strategic the intention for your organization to be socially responsible, in a holistic, empathetic way, in a company outcome. That could be product, service, policy, or process.
Interested in learning how to travel the world while helping worthy causes? Check out Dave’s blog, leanvolunteer.com, for his latest advice, and news about his upcoming book, The Lean Volunteer: How to Travel the World and Do Good With Your Business Expertise.
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