Take a look around at your community, and you will likely see problems that need to be fixed and work that needs to be done—everything from reversing environmental degradation to creating local jobs to ease unemployment. As an entrepreneur or business leader, you have an important role to play in solving those problems. In the course of their everyday transactions, businesses build communities linked to their products and services; imagine if we focused on mobilising those communities to bring about change. Coca-Cola sells 1.7 billion drinks every day, from Paris to Mumbai. If a fraction of those consumers were inspired to do something good each time they drank a Coke, the company really would be teaching the world to sing.
Remember that a company does not constitute just one community; there are its employees, its suppliers and its customers. And the brands that are most successful connect with people as individuals, not just as an order number or a transaction, which makes it easier to communicate and rally them to act. There have been many pioneers in this area, notably Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, who used their products to raise awareness and campaign on behalf of good causes. They created the Peace Pop ice cream bars in 1988 to build support for their campaign to get the US military to shift one per cent of its budget toward peaceful, life-improving initiatives.
Later, in 2006, this evolved into an American Pie campaign (and a new ice-cream flavour) to prompt consumers to demand that politicians put in place this shift in spending priorities. There were many more campaigns Ben & Jerry’s took part in, from encouraging people to vote to raising awareness about the rainforest.
At a leadership gathering at my home on Necker Island, Ben Cohen said: “I think that business is the most powerful force in the country. When business starts using its voice for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just in its narrow self-interest, it can really be the force that can make the changes that need to be made.” It can be tricky to keep that community going after your business is sold, as Ben & Jerry’s was to Unilever. I asked Ben about the transition. “It certainly has not been smooth sailing 100 per cent of the time since Unilever took over,” he replied. “Jerry and I now play an ongoing consultant role with the team from Ben & Jerry’s. The great opportunity we have is to act like a virus for good within a huge company like Unilever to influence their core decision making across all their brands.” When we at Virgin first started Virgin Unite some seven years ago, with the goal of organising the charitable efforts of people within and outside the company to accomplish more, we found that what our staff and business partners all wanted was quality versus quantity.
They told us that they didn’t want to be offered volunteer opportunities that won’t use their most valuable skills. Rather, they wanted to take part in tailored efforts that would have far more impact. So we created what we called “Hit Squads.” The Hit Squads are a great way for our staff members to donate their professional skills to a nonprofit organisation over a few very focused days. This might involve bringing together marketing experts from across our group or creating a team with a mixed set of skills; sometimes we bring in consultants as well. Although this is volunteer work, we ensure that the non-profit organisation and the team takes their work seriously by setting clear, deliverable goals and treating the assignment as though our company is being paid for a consultancy project.
These assignments are not only great for staff morale, but are also a great training and development tool as team members demonstrate their strengths and skills in a different area. We’ve donated our time to very small grassroots organisations and to large ones such as Archbishop Tutu’s Peace Centre and Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation.
A team member from Virgin Holidays wrote to me: “Knowing that the information we shared will indirectly help vulnerable children across the world made for a hugely satisfying experience. It made me proud to be part of Virgin.”
What skills do you and your employees have that you can donate? No matter how small or large your business is, as an entrepreneur or business leader, you are uniquely positioned to change the world. Do your part in creating a new way of doing business that will lead to a much more fair, more equitable and healthy global village.
(Adapted from Screw Business as Usual, by Sir Richard Branson)
Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/richardbranson.
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© 2012 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)