There is a set of tropes, if you will, in startup social-enterprise projects. You can almost imagine them as a set of madlibs to be filled out and magically transformed into a development project. While I'm getting tired of hearing these tropes rolled out as innovative new business models, clearly others have not yet gotten so worn out by them. I'd like to fix that, with this one-size-fits all madlib-style business plan builder.
Let's play! fill this list out:
1 Office or commercial space/building: ___________
2 Consumer good: ___________
3 Vulnerable population: ___________
4 Affluent neighborhood
5 Clothing item
6 Country where rich people live:
7 Your favorite MDG: ___________
8 Type of professional: ___________
9 "third world" country: ___________
10 Number between 1 and 10: ___________
Done? Great! Too lazy? I've automated the process for you.
Let's review your business plan...
You are going to build ___(1)___ using repurposed shipping containers, which you will use as a base to distribute ___(2)___ to ___(3)___ . This is possible because hipsters in ___(4)___ are buying one for twice the price, so that they can give one locally.
Once this is established, you will also give away ___(5)___s, which were shipped as surplus, unwanted goods from ___(6)___. This will destroy the local economy, unfortunately.
After this disaster, you will have to pivot your model to attract further grant funding, so you decide to solve ___(7)___ using SMSing to matchmake volunteer opportunities between ___(8)___ and organizations in ___(9)___, where they spend ___(10)___ days helping out, for free (plus the cost of the plane ticket, 5-star lodging, and meals).
If you think this is surely too simplistic, I'd remind you of a few decently high-profile versions of this. From OLPC's give-one-get-one program back in 2007, to the botched "1 Million Shirts" in Haiti in 2010 (since, of course, shut down (sorry, indefinitely ceased operations). TOMS Shoes is of course the current big-name in this field of 1-for-1 products, and Mission Measurement's Cheryl Davenport explores the failure of the model - and how to fix it.
Missing from the business plan madlib is celebrity references, but that hits at number 4 on the list of the 7 worst aid ideas after two SWEDOW (Stuff WE DOn't Want) entries and the machine gun preacher.
But these SWEDOW plans just keep coming - and being celebrated. Just last month the L Condom Company got a new round of attention on their buy-one-give-one model for condoms, which is at least planning to sell some through women-owned enterprises (as well as targeting some areas with free condoms). I forget the original source of this metric, but any social enterprise where you take the social out, and the enterprise isn't a compelling business, or you take the enterprise out and the social is not impactful and systems-changing -- is not a social enterprise.
So, as homework, go through the madlibs a few more times, let's all get this out of our system. Afterwards, get back to sustainable, impactful, and pathbreaking ideas instead of claiming that re-purposing feel-good models that actually do more harm than good are innovative.