Fancy the idea of changing the world? Alleviating poverty, facilitating social change, empowering communities and saving the planet may sound like daunting concepts but an increasing number of businesses and individuals are embracing the idea. And not just because it’s the "right thing to do" – but because it can be an exciting challenge to use business principles and ideas to make a difference.
The image of social change-makers is transforming fast. You no longer have to chuck in your day job and join the United Nations or other esteemed aid organisations and do a stint in a third world country.
As romantic and exciting as that adventure may sound, the practical reality is that this is not an option for most people. However, smart entrepreneurs are realising that there are other ways to make a difference.
At the most basic level, businesses can make a difference simply through their purchasing decisions. You can choose a "green" electricity supply, ensure you use recycled paper and adopt a water conversation policy.
Other companies go a step further with proactive support of social causes – ranging from donations to charities or overseas aid organisations or innovative social entrepreneurship initiatives.
Those with a bit more cash behind them are establishing major projects in the hope they will help change the world – and potentially leave a legacy that goes beyond creating a great company. Think Richard Branson’s commitment of all profits from his transportation businesses over ten years to combat global warming, estimated to reach around US$3 billion. Or eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who donated US$100 million for a Tufts University micro- finance program – providing tiny loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries who would otherwise not be able to break out of the poverty cycle.
Or, on a more practical level, Bill Gates will soon hand over the reins of Microsoft so he can concentrate on the change making initiatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Closer to home, investment gurus Michael Traill and Chris Cuffe, who had successful careers at Macquarie Bank and Challenger respectively, are now with Social Ventures Australia – a not-for-profit organisation that "uses business principles and skills from the commercial sector to work in partnership with outstanding social entrepreneurs to help combat some of Australia’s social problems."
Smart companies are also changing the world by matching their skills – or those of their team – with social programs that require innovation and technology to work. It’s like the days of helping out by serving homeless people in a soup kitchen. Volunteers like that are still needed – but not everyone wants to serve in a soup kitchen. So find a niche where you can make a difference – and get a kick out of using your skills and experience.
The team behind Kiva (www.kiva.org) created an innovative vehicle for micro-finance. It uses a web portal that enables people from around the globe to support specific individuals in developing countries with a small loan. Kiva partners with established micro-finance organisations – which previously would rely on labour-intensive fund-raising drives – to make this happen. But Kiva has harnessed technology so it can happen at the click of a mouse. Look behind this team and you’ll find a bunch of people who are formerly Google, eBay and Paypal executives.
Recently, I spoke with Rod Lester, an Australian working at the World Bank, specialising in micro-finance and microinsurance. He is convinced that technology is going to provide the solution for helping the poor break out of poverty – by helping to minimise the expense of dealing with millions of poverty-stricken households. It may sound like a pipe dream at this stage but, to borrow a phrase from Bill Gates, technological advances are made "at the speed of thought" these days. The technology is already here.
As businesses and individuals, we can decide to make money, build our empires and become leaders in our respective industries. Or we can do all that and change the world at the same time. Which will you choose?
Valerie Khoo is a journalist and small business entrepreneur. She runs the social enterprise Taylor & Khoo (www.taylorandkhoo.com) and is founder of the Sydney Writers’ Centre (www.sydneywriterscentre.com.au).