Can Businesses Do Well and Do Good?

In this guest lecture series organized by ONE (SINGAPORE), Daryl Arnold, Johan van Vuuren, Paul Dunn and Vernetta Lopez share thoughts and lessons on how it is possible for businesses to create positive change in the world.

Fusing Businesses and Sustainability

Daryl Arnold’s job is to help companies gain – by making them give. This might sound ironic, but according to Daryl, businesses that are committed to doing good can often end up doing better. As the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the unique sustainability consultancy Newton Circus, Daryl has worked with everyone from fledgeling start-ups to Fortune 500 companies; in most cases he has witnessed the often wonderful transformation that happens when companies embed sustainability in their structures or brands.

This fusion of businesses and sustainability – this ideal of a win-win situation – can be, in Daryl’s own words, a ‘completely positive experience’.

When companies take the first steps towards reducing their impact on the environment, they not only increase their social impact, but they can also expect to reap a whole line of tangible economic benefits. These gains can include greater customer retention, reduction in marketing costs, accelerated revenue growth and, finally, more ‘profit’, which Daryl insists is ‘not a dirty word’, as companies that do well are more likely to have the resources to do good.

When they are not helping businesses give back, Daryl and his team are working on their own ventures to help create a better world. They are the brainchild behind Sway Train, an online shopping website that gives shoppers the opportunity to create positive change while doing something as mundane as buying a gift. A percentage of each purchase made on Sway Train is turned into what is dubbed ‘Do Good Dollars’, which in turn goes to a cause of the shopper’s choice. The consumers feel empowered, money is raised, and positive change happens – this is surely an example of a fresh concept that leads to both social and economic benefits. As Daryl put it, it only took ‘three people and $100,000 to make Sway Train happen’, but the impact of such an idea could be manifold.

Breeding Corporate Social Conscience

Johan van Vuuren, on the other hand, provided some perspectives from the inside of a business that has been committed to giving back for the last few years.

While working and living in South Africa, Johan had witnessed an interesting trend: quite uncharacteristically, multinational companies were stepping up in dark times – for instance, during the Apartheid – to deal with some of the most pressing social issues on the ground. They were helping to seed positive change, even though that wasn’t technically their business. Johan’s work at Dimension Data, where he is now Director of Human Resources, continues in that same vein.

The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme in Dimension Data is a unique internal company scheme that encourages volunteerism among its employees, empowering them to give back in a meaningful way. The CSR programme currently sponsors the education of 60 to 200 children in 13 different countries in Africa and parts of developing Asia, and has a disaster support arm that mobilizes its employees to help in times of crisis. It also works with Non- Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to create or carefully select relevant programmes best suited for the local people.

Without a central budget, and operated with a unique bottom-up approach, the CSR programme is driven organically by its employees. The programme is non-hierarchical, giving any employee the chance to be the head of a committee. Some support is given through the sharing of central marketing resources, but because this is not a management initiative, funding is usually raised by committees in the individual countries where the programmes are based. Having imbued the employees with a deep sense of involvement, the CSR programme has since developed a life of its own. Real change, no matter how small – whether is it going to children’s homes or organizing bake sales to raise funds – is happening because of that.

Transforming the World by Giving

Can you imagine a world where giving is a habit? This is the vision of Paul Dunn, the marketing genius who has often been dubbed the ‘wizard of WOW’. These days, he is also one of the founders of Buy One Give One (B1G1), an initiative that wants to place the power of changing lives in the hands of businesses.

B1G1, Paul’s groundbreaking project, wants to change this. Its main thrust is this: giving does not have to be ad-hoc; in fact, every transaction made in the world can ‘give back and make a difference’. B1G1 connects business members to charities, allowing them to give a certain amount to their chosen cause every time they sell something. The giving, seamlessly integrated into the everyday workings of a business, has resulted in 1.4 million beneficiaries across the world.

Businesses do give, Paul conceded, but that sort of giving is usually short-term, obscuring a larger issue: a sore lack of connection, particularly among the customers, with the actual cause. In the United States of America (USA), out of the $380 billion given to charities, only 4% came from businesses. The reason for this shortfall is that so much of corporate giving is disengaged and disconnected, which makes it hard for real change to come by.

The future of businesses, for Paul, is clear: they ‘cannot do well unless they do good’. In USA, for instance, seven states have laws that stop people from registering their businesses unless they do good. In the next five to ten years, Paul speculated, this is the direction the world is going to head towards.

Before Paul ended his short, enjoyable lecture, he had to leave us with the following aphorism: when we give, businesses transform; when businesses transform, our nation transforms; when our nation transforms, our world transforms.

A Spiderweb of Change

Vernetta Lopez has one overarching goal: to make poverty history.

As the President of ONE (SINGAPORE), a non-profit organization dedicated to this cause, Vernetta believes that, while there are certainly many paths leading to a world free of poverty, the power of connecting cannot be underestimated – when businesses, communities and individuals are connected, the weaving together of their skills, resources and experiences can result in meaningful syntheses that can lead to real, measurable change in corners of the world where help is needed the most.

This sort of constructive – almost magical – networking is at the heart of ONE (SINGAPORE)’s Corporate Adoption programme, which links businesses with social projects and charity organizations.

Under the programme, a company that adopts a beneficiary takes on the role of both giver and nurturer. Direct monetary contributions – raising funds by way of hosting marathons or auctions – is one way in which a company can help, but perhaps more valuable is its ability to ‘teach them how to fish’. Corporate training sessions organized by the adopting company can help impart important skills to members of the beneficiary, giving them what is crucial in helping them break out of their poverty cycle: higher employability. Beyond the initial adoption period of one to two years, the adopting company will also have to work with ONE (SINGAPORE) to ensure that their beneficiary continues to be adopted. This is to make sure that they receive not merely temporary but long-term and ongoing help.

It is not easy to get businesses to give up a little of what they own, Vernetta confessed, but it can be done. The Cuff Road Project, a collaboration between ONE (SINGAPORE) and the non-profit Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), provides free meals for homeless or troubled migrant workers. Today the project successfully feeds an average of 500 workers every month in a comfortable, dignified manner, but it would not have been possible were it not for the companies and organizations that had stepped forward to volunteer their help and resources.

ONE (SINGAPORE)’s mission is buoyed by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Vernetta explained, which are a set of eight goals that all United Nations member states have agreed to achieve by 2015. Some of the targets include the ending of hunger and poverty, achieving universal education and gender equality, and improvements in both child and maternal health.

In 2008, ONE (SINGAPORE) organized the event Stand Up, which saw companies and celebrities adopting different MDGs and helping to raise funds for communities or groups aligned with the particular goal.

In terms of the future, ONE (SINGAPORE) hopes to do more, and better. It is an uphill battle, but as long as we continue to connect businesses, communities and individuals, Vernetta emphasized, this spiderweb of connections can continue to lead to positive change. And perhaps the day will come when we can live in a world truly free of poverty.