While working at a Guatemalan dental clinic in 2010, Eric and Geri Cope were struck by the number of local children who couldn't afford an everyday item most of us take for granted: a toothbrush. "That small basic necessity on our part was truly, with these kids, a luxury," Eric says.
Toothbrushes help counteract serious health issues, including oral cancer; some studies have even linked periodontal disease to conditions such as heart disease and stroke. Determined to help kids avoid such problems, in 2011 the married couple founded Smile Squared, a St. Louis-based company that donates one toothbrush to a child for every one purchased.
Cynthia Casperson--a registered nurse and director of health services at Dallas nonprofit Buckner Children and Family Services, which helps distribute Smile Squared's donations--traveled to Guatemala with the Copes on an eye-opening medical mission trip. "The children we saw might have 15 cavities in their mouth. And these aren't little tiny cavities. We witnessed huge, gaping holes where more than 50 percent of the tooth was eroded away," she says. "They're embarrassed and humiliated that their mouth looks bad, and embarrassed and humiliated about being poor."
Oral health services typically are sparse in developing countries. In poverty-stricken regions, diets tend to be high in fat and sugar (prevalent in cheaper foods), leading to cavities, gum disease and associated health problems.
"For many children, this may be the very first toothbrush they've ever owned. Some countries are so desperately poor that one family might share a toothbrush," Casperson says.
Smile Squared's $6 brushes, made of biodegradable bamboo and packaged in recyclable boxes, are donated through charitable organizations worldwide, including International Justice Mission, Save Their Smiles and Hands of Hope. So far, Smile Squared has distributed more than 7,500 toothbrushes to kids in Central America and in Mexico, Haiti, Cambodia, Kenya, India and the Philippines.
The brushes are sold via Smile Squared's website and at small groceries and drugstores. The company is focused on expanding to new retail channels, particularly major natural-foods stores. The Copes are looking into donating stateside as well.
Larger corporations are taking notice: This summer DuPont committed to donating enough filaments to manufacture 1 million Smile Squared toothbrushes.
The Copes chose a buy-one-give-one business model because it takes money to get the toothbrushes where they need to go, says Eric, who helms the business while Geri works full time in financial services.
The one-for-one model can also help personalize a business's cause, says Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund. "I think the buy-one-give-one model makes the charitable aspect of the purchase very concrete," he says. "It's making a direct connection between the thing someone's buying and that thing getting in the hands of someone else. There's a brand resonance in these models that makes a lot of sense."