When I started The DoNation, the last thing I would have called it was disruptive.
What we were aiming to do – running a business that was based not just on making money, but also on doing good - just made sense. It seemed like quite a natural idea.
At that stage, I was pretty naïve. I hadn’t yet been exposed to the concepts of disruptive models, radical innovations and paradigm shifts. I was full of youthful energy and enthusiasm that I could make a difference; that it couldn’t be that much of a challenge to make a business around doing good; that it was fairly normal.
But that soon appeared not to be the case. I was told that I was trying to shift age-old paradigms, that to succeed I’d needed to create radical disruption, that I was brave in pushing against such convention.
It was intimidating, to say the least.
If I hadn’t have been so committed already, I’d have run a mile. But I was lucky: I’d seen first hand that creating change really was achievable – when you start small, at home, with simple steps. That had given me the determination to keep on going and to let that change spread beyond me and my friends, and into my career. In turn, I soon saw that it worked and, meanwhile, I learned that running a ‘social business’ isn’t really all that radical at all.
In reality, the day-to-day business of it is just the same as running any other business: marketing, sales, product development, bookkeeping, recruitment, customer support, VAT returns, IT meltdowns, the lot. In fact, I can only think of five main differences between running a ‘normal’ and a social business:
1. Your motivation is stronger and the rewards are greater. Going into work knowing that you’re going to help make the world a little bit better today is a pretty nice feeling.
2. People are so much more willing to help you. They go out of their way to help you succeed because they’re excited about what you’re doing. That’s got to be good for morale and for business.
3. You have to think as a human not as a business, and make decisions with human morals. But hey – you are a human! So surely that’s way more natural anyway?
4. Performance is measured not only in financial profit, but also social impact. Yes, this can be a bit of a challenge for some businesses as not all good things are measurable. But there are proxies for most metrics – so it needn’t be a deterrent. As someone (rather cheesily) said to me recently “you can’t measure love, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it”.
5. Other people think what you’re doing is radical. And that, sadly, is the biggest deterrent to more people approaching business in this way.
It’s not too intimidating really, is it? If I’d been exposed to these conversations around disruptive business models before setting up The DoNation, I don’t think I’d have ever done it. I’d have been far too intimidated, and I doubt I’d have been alone.
At a time when we’re trying to boost the growth of social business and sustainability, surely we should be encouraging people to follow this path by showing them just how achievable, rewarding, and sensible it is – not by scaring all but the most ballsy away with endless discourse on radically disruptive paradigm shifts? Is intimidating jargon going to encourage people to follow what should be a fairly straightforward path?
Having said all that, I’ll put my hands up and admit that it’s clearly far more disruptive and challenging to embed social missions into an already established business. In order to succeed the whole workforce needs to buy into the mission and feel like they can play a part in it – and that’s no easy feat. But I’d say the same principle goes: to win their commitment to create change, we need to show employees that they can make a meaningful difference, without too much pain or disruption to their normal lives. And the best way to show this is to start small, with really simple personal steps that just make sense (washing clothes at 30, walking up the stairs, recycling). Once people see how doable these things are in their own lives, they’ll start to feel empowered and able to make a difference elsewhere in their lives – at work or in their community.
And then, with your workforce truly on board, socially driven business will become the norm, not the disruption.