How you can create wealth through charitable works

By: Richard Branson

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

A: 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.

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 non-profit 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 non-profit efforts, or to embed your charitable goals into the structure of your business, your venture can be successful.

The key seems to be in finding a business model that achieves your goals in a simple and practical way, and then focus on delivering well. Here are some examples to inspire you:

Washing one’s hands frequently is the best and simplest way to reduce respiratory infections and diarrhoea, the world’s two leading causes of child mortality, and the consumer goods giant Unilever is promoting this habit through its Lifebuoy soap brand. 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.

The brand was created by two brothers from Britain whose parents died in the 2004 tsunami when the family was vacationing in Sri Lanka.

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 non-profit 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 organisations 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 programme 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.

Look externally

Explore partnerships with people and organisations that have the skills 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 to explore how technology developed to monitor Formula One cars can help monitor activity levels for people who are struggling with obesity.

Dare to be different

Think creatively and entrepreneurially about how to meet your goals. 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.

Be unique

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 non-profit 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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