Why "1-for-1" Social Missions Matter

December 21, 2015

Some have argued recently that companies with social missions don't really make the world a better place. But I disagree because I've seen it work firsthand.

In October, I went to Ghana to see the good work of Pencils of Promise, an education nonprofit based in New York that has dedicated itself to building schools globally for some of the world's neediest. It wins marks for its sustainable approach. It will only build a school when the local community has "skin in the game" and with support from the government, so that whether Pencils of Promise removed itself as an external variable or not, the school becomes an ever-present part of a growing community.

I did this because my company, CommonBond, supports Pencils of Promise with a strong social mission: For every degree we fully fund on our student loan refinancing platform, we fund the education of a student in need for a full year in a Pencils of Promise school. Similar to TOMS and Warby Parker, it's a "1-for-1" social mission, and it's the first of its kind in education and finance. It's been a part of our business from the very beginning.

I like the "1-for-1" model because the more profit a company makes, the more social good it delivers. It aligns incentives nicely between profit and purpose. It is sustainable. It scales.

I also understand the criticisms of certain social missions. The general one is that corporations have corporate social responsibility (CSR) units that donate to charity to simply "check the box," they don't really care; they just want to look good. The more sophisticated criticism is about well-intentioned social missions not being sustainable enough. Both have merit.

Those criticisms are important to understand, but should not be taken as discouragement from having a social mission in the first place.

If you're an entrepreneur who wants to drive social good and make a profit, it's important to know that profit and purpose don't have to be mutually exclusive. They can very much be mutually reinforcing, if set up as sustainable, thoughtful and authentic.

Instead of questioning well-intentioned entrepreneurs who want to drive social good through for-profit enterprise, what I really question is why more companies don't have social missions in the first place. True social missions, built into the core of their products.

That's a world I want to live in. A world that honors and encourages more companies to develop meaningful social missions.

Imagine a world in which Coca-Cola builds a sustainable clean water well in a community in need for every 100 cases of soda sold. Or where American Airlines plants a tree for every 1,000 miles flown. Or where Exxon funds a solar panel for every 10 barrels of oil refined. Whatever the number, a company's social mission should make a meaningful difference.

You might think I'm a blind idealist. Truth is, I'm an extreme pragmatist. I run a company that has funded hundreds of millions of dollars in low-cost student loans that also runs a gross profit. Our social mission is the right thing to do—and that's why we have it—but it also turns out to be good business. Our customers go from borrowers to advocates, who drive awareness through word of mouth. Our employees join CommonBond in part because of our social mission—it brings greater meaning and purpose to our work. Our Social Promise says something about who we are as a company—and that has attracted phenomenally talented (and good) people to our team. When I talk to Neil Blumenthal of Warby Parker, he notices the same thing.

I'd like to live in a world where companies large and small think about how they can drive social good just as much as they think about how they can drive revenue and profit. And make it part and parcel to the core of what they do. From a place of inspired thought and holistic values, I think they can. Ultimately, it's a choice.

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