Don’t let Cynicism Undermine Your Support of Social Impact
A recent article by David Gelles in the New York Times highlighted several straw arguments that are slowing the widespread embrace of social enterprise. He wrote about a social enterprise named Bombas that sells high-end socks and, for every pair sold, donates a specially-modified pair to homeless shelters. The founders discovered a real need: socks are the most requested item at homeless shelters but they are the least donated item. This potential for social impact prompted the founders to start their company.
Buy one-give one (BOGO) is an excellent way for a social enterprise to create social impact. Tom’s Shoes is the most well-known. But in Central Ohio we have Double Comfort Restaurant (meals to food pantries), Gluvco (winter gloves to low-income students), and Carry Me Forward (backpacks to homeless teens).
The article notes that cynics will question the authenticity of the social impact, doubt the sincerity of being a social enterprise, or even question the ethics of BOGO. “Writing in The Journal of Consumer Psychology last year, a group of professors referred to the practice as ‘guilt laundering’.” I love the response from Bombas founders: “As far as people washing away their guilt, that’s fine….We’re doing something good with the purchase they’re making. If they feel good about themselves, great.” This is very realistic. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that charitable giving is motivated by emotion, and discouraged by over-thinking.
BOGO can be a very good approach to social enterprise as long as these precepts remain front and center:
- The social impact needs to be quantifiable and potentially verifiable.
- The product must be as good as the competition’s and the business must be financially viable. Social impact is the tie-breaker for the consumer. As Bombas’ founders said, “If we build a better pair of socks, we can sell more socks. And if we sell more socks, we can donate more socks.”
- Social enterprise will be funded by philanthropic investors who see investment as more powerful than just providing a grant.
- Investors looking just to make money are not the right audience. This last point is well-illustrated by Bombas’ experience on the TV show Shark Tank. Said Shark Kevin O’Leary, “You have to double your sales to give me the equivalent returns I get from a company that’s not [doing BOGO]” They also placed a low value on this type of business concept, valuing Bombas at just $1 million despite its $4.6 million of gross sales in 2015. In sharp contract, I regularly see $4 million valuations at our local technology incubator for companies with sales that are one-fifth what Bombas has already achieved.
Lastly, I tremendously admire and appreciate Bombas’ focus on solving local problems. “Instead of trying to solve problems in distant lands, the founders have focused on giving their socks to homeless shelters in the United States. ‘If other companies can do this for developing world countries, why can’t we do this to solve a problem that…is right here in our backyard.'” Amen.
See what is happening in the Central Ohio social enterprise space by following us on Facebook.com/cincohio or Twitter @CSEDcentralOH. And consider giving your business to Double Comfort, Gluvco, Carry Me Forward, or any of the over 85 social enterprises listed in our social enterprise directory.
Allen Proctor, President & CEO
Center for Social Enterprise Development