I've had a dream for a long time about starting something simple in concept, but infinitely powerful in scope: A chain of stores that is devoted to alleviating poverty around the world. Each sale triggers some giving action somewhere else for another person.
The concept is vague, which leaves room for questions, novel ideas and most importantly, responsible and highly effective philanthropy. This 'giving chain' could be in clothing, food, appliances, juice, luxury goods, car -- whatever. The product that is being sold doesn't matter all that much. What is important is the connection that is made; what is it that you will donate that is relevant to your product being sold (clothes for clothes, shoes for shoes, lumber for lumber, etc.) Partner with respected, and effective nonprofits to manufacture and donate the things that you decide to give. They are the experts on the ground and know how to address the root causes of many of these problems.
Food for food makes a lot of sense to consider as an exercise for you to think about other, potentially higher priced opportunities that could act as larger engines for giving. You buy a can of soup in one of these grocery stores, and we donate a meal to a person in need somewhere in the world. If you purchase a bottle of water, we would connect with our water giving partner in Africa, for example, to contribute a portion of that sale to digging a well in Kenya -- or even better, to giving a bottle of water to a person in need. Buying coffee, or fruit? Great, this grocery would then donate X percent of that sale to supporting fair trade, local farmers and donating a similar product to someone in need. This idea is all about connections between you (the American consumer), and another person in need -- whether in a developing country, or right here in the United States.
The small business owner might read this and say, "Well, it sounds nice, but my revenues are already below what I need to make ends meet... How would I make this work?" Studies have shown that people are willing to pay a premium for products that "do good." Mark up all your products just 10 percent, and you can do amazing things at scale around the world. As small boutique groceries and even large chains such as Whole Foods show us, people will pay more for quality, convenience and those ever-appealing words "vegan," "raw," "organic," "gives back," and the like. What we put in our grocery carts is a statement about our values. Maybe it's price, maybe it's quality, maybe it's the CSR of the company. Whatever the reason, we are drawn to products because they say something about us. Remember that next time you visit your local grocery store.
So, I'll leave you with one simple prediction for the next decade:
Our American culture will be less about conspicuous consumption, and more about "conscious consumerism." Giving back, in some way, will be a necessity for companies both large and small if they want to keep their customer base. Who are you going to chose? The department store that just sells you clothes, or the one that sells you clothes, and donates an article of clothing to children in need for every item you bought? It's up to you.
Your purchase decisions will begin change over the next few years. In fact, it's already happening as more social ventures pop up. After checking the ingredient label, you'll also hunt for a mission statement. Customers will make purchases based not only on the quality of product, but also based on the integrity of the company and their mission! Check out companies such as Warby Parker, TOMS, Two Degrees, FEED, One Laptop Per Child and One World Futbol, just to name a few.
But ideas alone are useless. Community leaders, mentors, teachers and social entrepreneurs need to inspire the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to make these bold, potentially world changing ideas into tangible businesses. Let your thoughts go wild and dream big. Only those who are bold enough to take the leap have even the slightest chance to succeed and help millions of people in need. Traditional philanthropy is not going to feed the world's hungry, but a more conscious consumer and a more caring entrepreneur just might.