Profit isn’t a dirty word

I’ve had a thought provoking week that has reinforced my conviction that business has a much bigger role to play in creating postive social and economic change.

We spent some time at Jamie’s Farm on Thursday – an inspiring venture in care farming in Wiltshire. A growing movement – care farms are a gentle yet highly impactful way to help disadvantaged children (or occasionally adults – eg wounded soldiers) to find their way. They spend a few days on the farm – getting involved in all aspects of it – real circle of life stuff.

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a young farmer, and Jamie

There’s no escaping life, death and responsibility on a farm – in the short time we were there we saw lambs being born, piglets cowering from their carnivorous mother, heard about rounding up escaped sheep, ate a freshly cooked pizza rounded off with some crackling from a pig that had been slaughtered on Monday. The kids – all from an inner city school – were loving it. The experience brings them out of themselves and exposes them to a completely different side of life. It’s a life changing experience.

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Lamb meets strange creature

Earlier I’d been to the launch of Lindsay Levin’s book Invisible Giants. I’ve written before about the work Leaders Quest do – they also help people, leaders of all kinds, to find their path by taking them out of their day-to-day, by showing them and involving them in ways of being, ways of living that shift their perceptions and open them up to new possibilities. It’s a powerful catalyst for change.

It was on a quest to India where I first got irked off by the “for profit, not-for-profit” divide. By the tacit but powerful assumption that doing good, making positive change is the preserve of the charities, NGOs and philanthropists – and that the moment profit seeking businesses are introduced into the equation the outcomes are somehow corrupted or put at risk.

What bothered me was not only this assumption but also the fragility of the not for profit effort. India in particular is festooned with the badges of philanthropy – this school, this enterprise, this facility exists only as a result of the ongoing benevolence of these donors. The signs (literally) are everywhere – on walls, on gates, on buildings even in flowerbeds. And what they say is this: if we donors withdraw the funding, or we benefactors don’t roll over the loan, or if your fund raising effort falters then this whole enterprise is put at risk.

To me it felt to be a demonstration of power – a reminder of superiority – a bit, well, a bit colonial.

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look what we did

And it also means that the founders, people like Jamie, spend a disproportionate amount of time focused on chasing the funding in a cycle they have limited control over. This is true for every not for profit enterprise I’ve seen – whether it’s a massive global charity, a school for abused girls, a centre for disability livelihoods. The cost of running the enterprises can’t be covered by what they take in. All are dependent in some way or another on discretionary donations – which in the current economic bind isn’t the most sustainable place to be in.

Which is where business, and profit, rides to the rescue. If these enterprises could make enough profit to determine their own destiny they would be – in the truest sense of the word – sustainable. GSK do amazing things in the least developed countries with their DCMA unit – utilising a for profit model to bring access to medicines to millions of people (mostly in sub Saharan Africa) which is both effective and sustainable. And it’s not aid – it’s business. It’s inspriational.

Two big conclusions – and the beginnings of a blueprint for better business:

– there’s a lot wrong with greed and self interest, but there’s nothing wrong with profit, in fact it’s vital to create sustainable enterprises.

– business can be a powerful force for change, the most powerful force for change, as long as it is focused on the outcome as part of its core mission. Which means making social responsibility part of the core.

People like Jamie’s Farm don’t need a CSR department. They don’t need one because the social outcome is their mission. Business could learn a lot from them.

And they could benefit a lot from business – by building enough profitable revenue streams that they can continue and grow the amazing work they do.

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3 thoughts on “Profit isn’t a dirty word

  1. Great to see you ruminating about the purpose of business and enterprise Nick. What you say about donors having an air of superiority has made me think about the donor-recipient relationship. Thanks for that.

    Was great to see you last week. Keep in touch and all the best.

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