THE BLOG

The Perpetual Poverty Machine

08/01/2013 04:44 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

I recently attended the NEXUS Summit at the United Nations -- a group of young activists, social entrepreneurs and philanthropists dedicated to making the world a better place. At the forum, Peter Buffett (son of Warren Buffett) spoke eloquently about what he calls the "perpetual poverty machine" and the "big business" of philanthropy. His recent New York Times op- ed addressed the need for total systemic change in the world of philanthropy and, I would submit, we need the same in most of our other systems, including business, civic and government sectors.

For example, in the business world, every time I've personally tried to innovate solutions that would add to transparency and trust in business or help propel sustainability initiatives, I'm told, "Great idea, but we can't focus on that now." It's all about short-term profits, not investing in innovative, leading-edge concepts that can really effect change.

This is exactly what the "B Team" and Arianna Huffington cite as a key problem with the for-profit business sector. They believe, as do I, "for far too long, businesses, in pursuit of short-term gain, have not accounted for the costs of their activities and negative impacts on society and the environment. Instead, they need to focus on the long-term, and the consequences of their actions."

OK, this is a really sound strategy.... but how do we begin to shift this paradigm? I submit that it will take a team of really innovative thinkers and investors willing to take risks that can bring these ideas to fruition working in conjunction with companies that are today short-term focused -- sort of a "heal the world incubator" that can bring together institutions like the United Nations, visionaries like the "B Team," the Elders and business innovators within corporations. These business accelerators can co-create a think-tank of ideas that are game-changing and then work together with companies and institutions to use their wherewithal to execute and bring them to market. Companies often use these outside accelerators for business innovation. Why not leverage that model for "sustainable" business innovation? After all, if we think businesses will shift quickly to suddenly place a "real" emphasis on these issues, I think we are deluding ourselves. We've not seen it happen yet and the stakes are high. Yes, I get that it's because unless they are required to do so, businesses run the risk of becoming less competitive in the market short-term, by putting investments in longer-term, sustainable solutions. But is there another way?

I think this model would help dissolve these constraints and also awaken the innovation and leadership of so many employees trapped in corporate short-term models who want their business to make a difference. These employees could offer up ideas that would get vetted by this social "think tank" as well.

But to further reinforce these changes, I also believe we must collectively join forces as consumers. We have much more power than we realize to drive the outcomes we wish. We can and should patronize those companies making the real investments in people and planet... and by doing so we can help create the profit motive for companies to continue to do the right thing. This is exactly what our company, HealRWorld, will perpetuate.

Finally, the so-called "social impact investors" and philanthropists have to be willing to take chances on game-changing ideas and companies without such primary emphasis on their financial "Return On Investment (ROI)" -- be willing to take risks to solve real problems... and let the outcomes of those risks define a new metric for ROI -- how much impact have we truly effected? Some will win, some will lose... but what is the price we will all collectively pay if we don't try? Perhaps we will only serve to perpetuate the current poverty machine with inaction. And that's a risk we cannot afford to take.