Blogs & Comment

Business and charity are no longer mutually exclusive: Richard Branson

A new generation of mission-focused businesses are improving lives worldwide, and turning a profit too

Richard Branson

(Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

Traditionally, business and charity have been thought to be mutually exclusive, but that divide is starting to dissolve.

Take, for example, the rise of B corporations in the United States. The B stands for “benefit”: these businesses are not in the game just to make a profit; they are independently certified by the non-profit B Lab “to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency.” So far, B Lab says, it has certified 910 companies from 29 countries and 60 industries.

Whether you decide to keep your business activities separate from your non-profit efforts, or to embed your charitable goals into the structure of your business, your venture can be successful. The key seems to be to find a business model that achieves your goals in a simple and practical way, and then focus on delivering well. There are several companies that seem to be excelling at this.

Washing one’s hands frequently is the best and simplest way to reduce respiratory infections and diarrhea, the world’s two leading causes of child mortality, and the consumer-goods giant Unilever is promoting this habit through its Lifebuoy soap brand. The company has particularly targeted this campaign at developing countries like India where, according to the World Health Organization, more than 1,000 children under five die from diarrhea every day—the highest rate in the world. Unilever makes money from Lifebuoy while saving lives—a wonderful example of a large-scale entrepreneurial approach to a serious public health challenge.

Gandys is a smaller-scale example of a business that turns profit into good works. We stock and wear its special-edition “Necker Red” flip-flops at the resort near my home. The brand was created by Rob and Paul Forkan, two brothers from Britain whose parents died in the 2004 tsunami when the family was vacationing in Sri Lanka (the young boys just barely escaped).They are using profits from this venture to build an orphanage in India; the funds also go to other projects designed to help orphaned children.

Other models help to create jobs or foster entrepreneurial activity. Virgin Unite, our non-profit foundation, has partnered with the international development charity Christian Aid since 2009 to bring health care to remote rural communities in Kenya. While health problems ranging from malaria to AIDS to respiratory tract diseases are common there, transportation can be difficult to find, which means that distance can dictate whether a person lives or dies.

Our organizations built the Rural Transport Network to provide local health-care workers with the motorbikes they needed to travel the distances required: more than 30 riders are currently delivering supplies, care and advice to remote locations in Kenya. The entrepreneurial element of this program is an especially interesting innovation. The health-care workers deliver their services for half the week, and the rest of the time they can use the motorbikes for free to build their own businesses. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Above all, dare to be different: it could be that merging your business and charity is the way forward, but don’t be bound by what other companies are doing—your creative problem-solving skills could lead you to discover a new path to success.

Whatever model you decide to pursue, after you have it up and running, you should continue to ask yourself and your team how your different business and charity goals can augment and influence one another, and whether what you’re doing is truly working. At Virgin, our group of companies works increasingly closely with Virgin Unite. Just like all collaborations, a diversity of perspectives can result in real creativity.

So ask your business-minded people to tackle charitable goals, and your health or non-profit people to do the same with your business goals. Great ideas come from bringing together people from different backgrounds—it may turn out that in your field, charity and business are not opposed at all.

Richard Branson is a philanthropist, adventurer, entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin Group of companies