Monday, June 21, 2010

A new kind of business

Corporate Social responsibility has been around as a concept for some time. It has been increasingly picking up momentum and allowing corporate bodies, hitherto focused only on making profits for shareholders and promoters to look beyond these horizons. CSR initiatives are now in place in many business entities and can take many forms – from simply writing a cheque and funding a favourite charity to encouraging employees to get involved in specific tasks that encourage more than just passive fund giving. CSR has in certain situations got to the point where business entities have set up non profit organizations which operate within the overall ambit off the corporate brand but with their own mandate.

CSR of course means many things to many people. Some entities genuinely pursue it with a passion. In India, the Tatas have traditionally been known to have been those who have promoted CSR initiatives from long before the term itself was coined --- from the early 20th century in fact, when the town of Jamshedpur was being planned and built. Today there are several others like Infosys, Wipro and others who have their own CSR initiatives. An offshoot of CSR perhaps is when individuals associated with corporates, with their own private wealth set up funds and ventures and become philanthropists. A well known example would example would be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

But like every paradigm, this one too is changing. Charities are evolving too like everyone else. If businesses are becoming altruistic and looking at more than just their balance sheet , charities are also looking at more innovative ways to raise money than continually wait at funder’s doorsteps and dance in tandem to a donor’s footsteps. Donor fatigue may ensure that yesterday’s need has become today’s burden and no longer do fundable; but human needs not just fade away like the last season’s autumnal dress selection. Needs remain, require to be addressed and no responsible agency can walk away because yesterday’s fad is no longer fashionable to fund and resources therefore are beginning to dry up. So why not set up your own business and do what the corporates are doing – generate profits and generate them ethically with a framework of values underpinning the whole enterprise and then send the profits back to fund the core charitable activities.

The Jacobs Well project of Oasis is one such model; where the core charitable activities of Oasis remain the focus and yet the entity is run as a viable business with fair trade practices and the ethos of Oasis guiding it in what it will and will not do and how it will do them. Legally and in terms of its identity and branding, it is a separate entity doing business, striving to compete aggressively but fairly in the marketplace and make money and as much of it as possible. And when money is made, after retaining enough for ongoing business expansion and consolidation, the surplus is handed over to fund charity.

So it is a classic case of reverse engineering. Typically NGOs and charities have gone to big businesses and asked for money to sustain themselves and their work. Often they have to constantly keep tweaking their work to make sure it meets donor requirements and preferences. It is not unusual for an organization’s work to be diluted or affected in the process; after all, money is a big influencer. Jacobs Well attempts to keep Oasis’ core charitable focus and activities at its heart , even while it ventures to a competitive market place and remain a viable and sustainable business entity that is not just selling its products to a captive charity market , but out there in the more demanding public bazaar.

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