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The Good Business of Social Change

Social Capitalists

The Good Business of Social Change

BY: CHERYL DAHLE

Our Social Capitalist winners have developed some best practices that leaders in any sector can learn from. Here are their insights.

Thank your customers. Then thank them again.
John Wood, CEO and Founder, Room to Read
We make it a policy to almost "over-thank" our donors with as many creative gestures of appreciation we can imagine. In addition to establishing libraries and building schools, we publish native language books. When we recently did our first bilingual book in Nepali and English, we culled the donor list for those with children between ages 3 to 5. We sent out a mailing to those donors with a copy of the book, just thanking them. When opened our 2000th library, we dedicated it to our donors and sent a mailing to our top 200 givers with a book and a thank you as well.

It definitely pays off in ways we can measure. Just as a result of that mailing, we brought in an additional $80,000--without asking for anything.

Let your customers sell for you
Paul Rice, CEO and Founder, TransFair

Our model is to mobilize consumer demand for products that pay farmers a fair price so companies that distribute our certified products are rewarded for doing the right thing. That means that our customers are our most powerful advocates. So we need to find ways to support them and encourage them to speak up, without fostering an aggressive, anti-corporate stance with the companies we want to carry our product.

A few years ago, many companies were taking a wait and see approach to fair trade. Sara Lee, the third-largest coffee company in the world, got a little prodding from some students on college campuses who wanted to be able to buy fair trade coffee in their dining halls. The students wrote letters. Sara Lee wasn't convinced. So then they started signing petitions. At this time, we were providing data and resources to students and were counseling them--keep it nice, keep it professional, give them time. Give them the business data. Show them there is demand.

They eventually prevailed and Sara Lee converted those two campuses 100 percent to fair trade coffee. Sales went up dramatically, even with the higher price point.

We're in somewhat of a unique position to have our customers advocate for us, but I think more businesses should ask themselves: What would make my customers feel so good about my product that they'd be willing to sell it for me? What could I do to cultivate that sort of grassroots, die-hard fan relationship?

Recruit the right customers, in the right networks.
John Wood, CEO and Founder, Room to Read

Apart from the kids and communities we serve in developing nations, our "other" customers are our volunteers. We recruit volunteers to run fundraising chapters for us all over the world. More than 40 percent of our operating budget is raised by volunteers who are not on our payroll, which is one reason why we operate with such a low overhead, just eight cents on every dollar.

We think strategically about who we invite into our fold: We want smart, driven, ambitious professionals who want to do more with the contribution of their time to a good cause than stuff envelopes. We bring our chapter leaders together once a year and involve them in the strategic direction of the organization.

We think of these folks as our buzz agents: they talk us up in circles of influence where people are interested in international development and have money to spend.

For example, a member of our London chapter who works for Accenture was at a cocktail party and ran into someone who sat on the board of a global foundation. He invited that person to attend the next Room To Read fundraiser. Today, that foundation commits over $1 million to our work.

Do your market research in the field.
Christopher Elias, PATH
One of the health technologies we're exploring for use in the developing world is a high-pressure jet injection device that administers shots without a needle. Basically, it puts a stream of fluid under such high pressure that it pierces the skin. Not having a needle eliminates the chance of cross-infection.

But we wanted to test the prototype with the people in villages that would actually be using it. So we tied an artificial arm to a tree in a village in Senegal and let people try injecting the arm with this device. That might seem weird, but I assure you that there's a huge difference in the feedback you'd get running that test in a basement in Seattle and doing it in a hot, dusty village with the people who'll actually be using it.

Getting real feedback from users in the field as early on in the product development as possible is critical to successful adoption. In this case, we found out the device was really just too heavy. And, they also wanted us to try to make it look a lot less like a gun. It was scaring the kids.

Understand the emotional appeal of your brand
Paul Rice, CEO and Founder, TransFair
When I started TransFair, the goal was to empower farmers. I've learned since then that the story of TransFair is as much about empowering people in the U.S. and giving us a voice in this country as it is about empowering farmers.

People are looking for a way to make a difference. They're concerned about the direction the world is going in. There's so much bad news everywhere. Many people feel like their voice isn't being heard, their vote doesn't count. So maybe fair trade is giving people a way to find that voice again and to feel like they actually can make a difference.

Most people don't have time to write a letter to the editor or go to a demonstration, or even vote, if we look at the statistics. But they do have time for a cup of coffee. They do have time to go to the grocery store. If we can give people an effortless way to express their voice for a more fair and sustainable world, I think we will have truly created something powerful.

That's now as much a part of our story as empowering farmers--the beginning of a new consumer awakening in which people relate to every dollar they spend as an opportunity to vote for a better world.