I had my ear bent by a man working in the organics sector recently. He called to talk candles and 40 minutes later we were solving the problems of the organics sector, one bee at a time.

The man had been in business for 17 years. He’d methodically crafted his business into an ecologically-friendly, energy-generating, socially responsible, thoughtful enterprise, with rising profits to boot. In my book, he’s reached the gold standard in business.

Aid and its problems

Businesses make profits; aid organisations redistribute financial or other material support from the wealthy and powerful to the poor and disenfranchised. Until Utopia blooms, we need aid and philanthropy to supplement, augment and, in some cases, replace government support.

But there’s a problem with aid – it’s unsustainable (it generally flows in one direction only), it’s rife for abuse (always a possibility where there’s significant power inequality), and it’s often inefficiently delivered. Inefficiencies in aid distribution, sloppy research and poor planning, lack of real understanding and financial mismanagement feed the cycle of aid unsustainability as people experience ‘aid fatigue’ and stop giving.

My charity is not your charity

We can’t make people care. Our causes are not self-evident. Each of us has particular stories, different people, or life circumstances that inform our passion for certain causes.

For 10 years, I sponsored a child through World Vision after watching one of those TV commercials featuring actress Rebecca Gibson. Just a child myself, I was struck by the individual stories of children skillfully told through television. Since returning from overseas travel in my twenties, I’ve been supporting the Matthew Talbot Hostel, because it’s absurd to me that such a wealthy city as Sydney has so many homeless people.

Then one day I got bailed up in Sydney’s busy Martin Place by a Medecins Sans Frontières fundraiser asking me about Sudan. As it happens, I was in the thick of a university essay on the recent massacres in Sudan. Right place, right time: I’ve been supporting Medecins Sans Frontières for about ten years now.

Unsustainable business

Business run for rapacious profit, with no respect for people, society or environment, are unsustainable in the long-term. Without ethical business, it’s too easy to bring down a professional reputation with the aid of the media. Businesses are accountable to people, if people demand them to be.

Of course, corporate governance and astute accountability are far more likely in countries where democracy is stronger but, with sufficient international support carried on the wings of media, radical corporate change can, and does, happen. Power to the people.

Giving and getting

Charities face constant struggles to raise funds. When door-knocking on behalf of various charities, I’ve been the recipient of a lot of goodwill, which makes the act of giving somewhat reciprocal. And guilt can play a part, something I utilised when I hauled my (then) six year-old sister along to up the donation ante.

But essentially, there is no exchange, which makes it a ‘hard sell’. Even with accomplished marketing which highlights the individual stories of the recipients, plays on guilt, or taps into people’s sense of collective responsibility, the problem remains – you need to make people care. And that’s not easy.

Inefficiencies meet consumers

Businesses are concerned with improving efficiencies because inefficiencies erode profits.

Further, businesses are the products of their consumers. Without customers, you’re quickly out of business. To a degree, it is our customers and clients who influence the direction and development of our businesses. Smart business owners have a direct line to their ideal clients, listening closely to anticipate what’s coming up next.

Aid meets business

In about 2008, the year I started my own business, I went to a networking event to hear Cheryl Kernot, former Australian Senator, speak on the topic of social enterprise.

Here’s the Wikipedia definition of social enterprise: “A social enterprise is an organisation that applies commercial strategies to maximise improvements in human and environmental wellbeing, rather than maximising profits for external shareholders. Social enterprises can be structured as a for-profit or non-profit, and may take the form of a co-operative, mutual organisation, a disregarded entity, a social business, or a charity organisation.”

When I worked as a tour leader in Cambodia, I took my groups to places that were social enterprises, I just didn’t have a term for it. Restaurants run by former street kids, quality textiles produced by former sex workers and candles made by street kids – all examples of social enterprise in motion.

Social enterprise keeps social good at the centre of everything. Social enterprise may be a for-profit business providing an everyday product but doing things very differently – from its premises, to its supply chain and byproducts, the use of energy, and staff employment and development.

At the time of Cheryl’s talk, one of my retainer clients was the Centre for Social Impact (CSI), a think-tank and training organisation that brought together charities and corporations, recognising that each needed the other. A few months later, Cheryl joined CSI, and is still there.

Social enterprise for profit and good

The problem with selling wristbands for charity is that nobody really needs them. Most cultural handicrafts only have a market at Christmas-time and even then, I wonder how many recipients really want them.

Social enterprise taps into the efficacies of commerce – producing something which is in demand – with the social aspect of charity – supporting and empowering the less fortunate, most vulnerable members of society.

Done well, social enterprise reinvents every link in the production chain, from ecologically-sustainable, energy-producing, thoughtfully-designed and aesthetically-pleasing physical premises, right through to exceptionally delivered, useful, socially relevant and valuable products (or services). Nothing is wasted; everything has a purpose.

Beyond your products

Often, wellbeing businesses rest on their laurels believing that their product – be it yoga classes, organic juices, naturopathic consults, or sustainably-produced clothing – is enough. But we can all, always, do better.

How you treat your staff and contractors, how you involve and empower people, how you smartly utilise every byproduct created by, and used by your business, is an opportunity to move towards social enterprise. And it’s all fantastic fodder for your marketing – your blog posts, your social media updates, your newsletters. Share what you’re doing and the direction in which your business is headed. Involve people in these decisions, ask for advice and referrals, and watch people respond. Now you’re moving towards gold standard.

In businesses where people are motivated more by personal passion than money, it’s easy to get swept up in others’ enthusiasm and convince yourself that you’re doing the best by people because they are willing to work for free or next-to-nothing. In these situations, we need to exercise self-inquiry and ask what’s the right thing to do. Profit is important, but not at the expense of ethics.

Small steps to greatness

Business evolve, times change, trends move on. Gold standard is not easy to achieve because it’s the sum of each and every little part. Going green can be expensive. Avoid diving in the deep end and burning out quickly – small steps are far better. Map out what you’d like to do and how you’d like to do it. Involve your clients: ask for referrals, information and feedback. In the meantime, you’ll need to keep making money to fund your larger changes. And take the first step today, chip, chip, chipping away.

Are you ready to claim the gold standard in business? Join Hustle & Heart.