Viewpoint

A New Form of Business for a New, Socially Conscious World

As a recently retired CIO I have had the luxury to reflect on my career, how I could have done some things differently and what things I should not have done at all! A CIO colleague (also retired) refers to this reflection activity as "Observations from above the Trenches" (Educause Review July/August, 2008). I had been in my new retirement location for just a few months when I read an article in the Business Section of the local newspaper about an IT professional services company with a new "socially conscious" form of business. I was intrigued enough with the concept (and, I will admit, I had time on my hands since I was no longer absorbed by 60+ hour work weeks) that I contacted the principals to find out more. After several conversations over coffee and lunch I found myself volunteering my services and eventually becoming a member of their Board of Directors.

The Balancing Act: Achieving personal comfort and wealth while also making a difference in the world

During my 40+ years in IT, I had to balance my professional activities with my desire to serve the local community in which I lived through community service activities. As I rose through the ranks to the C-level, I encouraged my staff to do the same, often giving them the necessary time off from work. By day we designed and executed IT strategies and plans for our employer. During lunch hours, evenings, and weekends we would lend our IT expertise to local not-for-profit organizations as volunteers or as members of their boards. Those who could not afford the time for personal involvement in community-oriented activities satisfied their desire to have an impact on the welfare of society through the impersonal act of writing checks in response to fund-raisers or by agreeing to payroll deductions for their favorite cause. As a board member for several non-profits, I was always aware of the amount of time that was consumed with fund-raising rather than focusing on service delivery and technologies that might improve and expand services.

Impact Makers (www.impactmakers.org), a new company that I have become acquainted with in retirement, has created a unique way for organizations and individuals to fulfill corporate and personal social responsibility as part of their normal business and professional activities.

The B Corporation: Making a difference while you make a buck
 
Impact Makers is one of the founding B Corporations with B Lab. B Lab has received much attention in the national press, including a recent article in Entrepreneur Magazine (www.entrepreneur.com) in July 2008. B Lab was created in 2006 to identify and certify companies that are socially responsible in terms of environmental and social impact. To earn a B Corporation certification, a company must meet at least 80 of B Lab's 200 standards and amend its charter to include the interests of its employees, its community, and the environment. The certification is renewable every two years, and the certified B Corporations are subject to random third-party audits.

Among all founding B Corporations, Impact Makers is unique. While all other B Corporations are for-profit LLCs or corporations, Impact Makers is structured as a non-stock venture led by senior consulting executives. They compete head-to-head for contracts in the highly competitive world of professional services, while hiring highly qualified IT professionals at the going market rate.

However, there is one critical difference: Rather than distributing profits to shareholders per traditional corporate structures, Impact Makers' profits, by corporate charter, go directly to non-profit community partners who are selected by its volunteer Board. Labeled "social entrepreneurship" in academic, business and political circles, the idea is not new; however, real-life successful implementations are rare. Impact Makers has managed to attract a cadre of IT professionals who are anxious to work in this new environment; not because they have to, but because they want the personally rewarding experience that it provides on top of their day-to-day job activities. Local businesses are starting to understand the benefit of such partnership in combination with successful client project execution, so the contracts are coming as well. In that respect, Impact Makers is well on its way to success.

The Win-Win-Win Proposition: Does it really work for everyone?

I will convey the proposition here the way it was explained to me by the creators of Impact Makers: This is about a winning strategy for all and not about shareholder wealth.

First, customers get premium products and services from talented IT professionals. In addition, they are able to tout their corporate social responsibility in their local communities at no additional cost by using already budgeted technology and consulting funds; no need to make a separate donation through a labor-intensive corporate foundation. IT staff can work side-by-side with Impact Makers' staff and achieve a sense of personal social responsibility while on the job.

Second, Impact Makers' IT professionals get to work on projects that they really care about while earning top wages for their valuable experience, skills, and training. Impact Makers also gives their employees time each week away from the office to devote hands-on time with its non-profit partners. This balance of professional and community work results in job satisfaction which enables Impact Makers to attract and retain employees, a key competitive advantage in a service industry where employees are the firms' assets.

Third, the non-profit partners get a recurring, sustainable income that frees up their resources that were previously consumed with fund-raising and re-focuses them on direct services to the community.

Finally, society gets a working model of a successful business with social responsibility built in rather than an afterthought. When business, societal, and individual needs can converge in this way, a powerful model emerges to challenge the way things are done today.

A New Role for IT? Being green and socially responsible?

The IT community is already addressing environmental concerns through green, zero carbon, renewable energy data centers, virtualization, telecommuting, e-books and the like. Has the time come to discuss business social responsibility as well? We will need to see more of these social ventures that are focused on being socially responsible before we can measure their collective economic strength. However, if I were back "in the trenches" I would try to ensure that I had one of these social ventures, such as Impact Makers, on my short list of vendors just to give this new business concept a chance to prove it can work.

About the Author

Diane Holmes Barbour recently retired as CIO at Rochester Institute of Technology.

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