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Could This Business Model Change the World?

More and more businesses are exploring ways to do good, whether it be by behaving with greater social conscience, seeking to lessen their environmental footprint, or both.

There's only one problem with this business-as-savior model. That is, businesses weren't designed to be saviors.

Certainly, you can tweak the model, introducing measures that write sustainability and social conscience right into the company DNA.

But you keep bumping into the fact that businesses are best when they're focused on building shareholder value.

Audette ExelThis fact wasn't lost on Audette Exel. A no-nonsense Kiwi with an incredible pedigree as both a banker and lawyer, Exel wanted to make a positive impact but kept running into the limitations of the business model.

At the same time, she knew NGO was not the way to go. Although they seemed to have a better grasp of the complex systems that enveloped social or environmental problems, NGO's couldn't realize their potential because they were constantly strapped for cash.

So, in a move that underlined her common sense and can-do attitude, Exel built one of each.

Chocolate, meet peanut butter

The ISIS Group includes several businesses that operate in niche areas of legal, consultancy, and corporate finance. The ISIS Foundation, meanwhile, is a not-for-profit that focuses on improving the lives of children in the developing world.

ISIS Foundation Here's where the real innovation comes in. The Group is also the "engine" that funds 100% of the administration, infrastructure, and emergency project costs incurred by the Foundation. Both the business and not-for-profit are run from the same offices, with day-to-day involvement by the same management teams.

As Exel says "This enabled us to tap great finance people who wanted to do good. Instead of sending them to build homes for the poor, we told them to simply continue doing what they did best—making money."

The millions of dollars they made went directly into projects to help children. As a result, ISIS has saved, or dramatically improved, hundreds of thousands of young lives.

Exel likens it to Venus and Mars thinking. Alone, businesses and NGO's can't grow beyond their natural scope. Blended, they end up compromising their original strengths. But co-existing and working together toward a common goal, they can truly perform as unique partners.

So why isn't everyone doing it?

Exel is the first person to acknowledge hers model is far from perfect.

"You need enlightened people on both sides to make it work. Even so, there are big differences that need to be overcome."

Businesspeople, for example, often fail to appreciate that humanitarian solutions are more complex than business solutions. And NGO thinkers have a hard time seeing businesspeople as partners.

Issues like compensation are also thorny. As Exel says "How do you value the money maker, versus the money spender?"

Still, in a world grappling with conscious capitalism, the ISIS model is a great step in the right direction.

Why didn't I think of that?

Exel's business model seems self-evident—in hindsight. But in fact, it was the result of great innovation thinking.

And like every great innovation, it comes with learnings:

* Every innovation starts with an insight. And every insight comes from an unmet need. Learn how to find those unmet needs.

* A great insight needs to be answered with a great idea to blossom. ISIS answered the need for social enterprise with a solution that enabled both its Foundation and business to shine.

* Fail fast, fail forward. Audette Exel knows her model isn't perfect. Every day, she challenges her team to hone it.