Richard Branson on Doing Good by Doing Good Business

Richard Branson on Doing Good by Doing Good Business
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Editor's Note: Entrepreneur Richard Branson regularly shares his business experience and advice with readers. Ask him a question and your query might be the inspiration for a future column.

Q: My dad has pancreatic cancer, and I plan on creating a charity through which I can help people like him. But if I separate money-making activities from charitable ones, is my effort likely to succeed? -- Joseph Wanjohi, Kenya

I’m sorry to hear about your dad’s illness. It is always good to hear from entrepreneurs like you, who are just as interested in working on important social problems as they are in making money -- for me, these are such challenging and exciting goals and projects.

Well done for taking on such an important issue! Traditionally, business and charity -- and their purposes -- have been thought to be mutually exclusive, but that divide is starting to dissolve. Take, for example, the rise of B Corporations in the United States. The B stands for "benefit": these businesses are not in the game just to make a profit; they are independently certified by the nonprofit B Lab "to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency." So far, B Lab says, it has certified 910 companies from 29 countries and 60 industries.

Whether you decide to keep your business activities separate from your nonprofit efforts, or to embed your charitable goals into the structure of your business, your venture can be successful. The key seems to be to find a business model that achieves your goals in a simple and practical way, and then focus on delivering well. Here are a couple of examples to inspire you:

Washing one’s hands frequently is the best and simplest way to reduce respiratory infections and diarrhea, the world’s two leading causes of child mortality, and the consumer goods giant Unilever is promoting this habit through its Lifebuoy soap brand. The company has particularly targeted this campaign at developing countries like India where, according to the World Health Organization, more than 1,000 children under 5 die from diarrhea every day -- the highest rate in the world. Unilever makes money from Lifebuoy while saving lives -- a wonderful example of a large-scale entrepreneurial approach to a serious public health challenge.

Gandys is a smaller-scale example of a business that turns profit into good works. We stock and wear its special edition “Necker Red” flip-flops at the resort near my home. The brand was created by Rob and Paul Forkan, two brothers from Britain whose parents died in the 2004 tsunami when the family was vacationing in Sri Lanka (the young boys just barely escaped). At present, they are using profits from this venture to build an orphanage in India; the funds also go to other projects designed to help orphaned children.

Other models help to create jobs or foster entrepreneurial activity. Virgin Unite, our nonprofit foundation, has partnered with the international development charity Christian Aid since 2009 to bring health care to remote rural communities in Kenya. While health problems ranging from malaria to AIDS to respiratory tract diseases are common there, transportation can be difficult to find, which means that distance can dictate whether a person lives or dies.

Our organizations built the Rural Transport Network to provide local health care workers with the motorbikes they needed to travel the distances required: More than 30 riders are currently delivering supplies, care and advice to remote locations in Kenya. The entrepreneurial element of this program is an especially interesting innovation. The health care workers deliver their services for half the week, and the rest of the time they can use the motorbikes for free to build their own businesses -- some have entered microcredit programs as these small ventures have grown. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Remember to look externally too -- explore partnerships with people and organizations that have the skills or perspectives you need. The best partners may not be the obvious ones. I recently came across a great example, where SimplyHealth, a health insurance provider, is funding a study by doctors in a group practice based in Stowmarket, England, academics at nearby University Campus Suffolk, and the team at McLaren Applied Technologies to explore how technology developed to monitor Formula One cars can help monitor activity levels for people who are struggling with obesity.

Above all, dare to be different: Think creatively and entrepreneurially about how to meet your goals. It could be that merging your business and charity could be the way forward, but don’t be bound by what other companies are doing -- your creative problem-solving skills could lead you to discover a new path to success.

Whatever model you decide to pursue, after you have it up and running, you should continue to ask yourself and your team how your different business and charity goals can augment and influence one another. At Virgin, our group of companies works increasingly closely with Virgin Unite. Just like all collaborations, a diversity of perspectives can result in real creativity.

So ask your business-minded people to tackle charitable goals, and your health or nonprofit people to do the same with your business goals. Great ideas come from bringing together people from different backgrounds - it may turn out that in your field, charity and business are not opposed at all.

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