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Paying It Forward
Social enterprises use new business models to drive charitable goals
By Mara Lee Durrell | NO. 10 MARCH 10, 2016


A recipient of free Education in Sight prescription eye glasses is a fourth grader at Xingfu Elementary School in Yunnan Province (COURTESY OF EDUCATION IN SIGHT) 

While visiting a rural community in the highlands of Guatemala, my sister, who was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer there, arranged for us to be outfitted in the traditional dress of the local village before attending the graduation ceremony of the area's first health education program. We met our host outside of a modest house at the end of a long dirt road, only to see that she and I were wearing the exact same shoes. Smiling, I shared that for every pair that someone bought, another was given to someone in need, somewhere in the world.

Those black canvass slip-ons that we were wearing are the trademark of Toms, a socially conscious brand based in California. Founded by entrepreneur Blake Mycoskie in 2006, the company started donating shoes to a child in a developing country for each pair they sold on a "one-for-one" basis. Toms and its founder are now prominent leaders of a movement that uses consumer purchasing power to drive charitable giving.

Today, the "buy-one-give-one" model and the larger, loosely organized "doing well by doing good" mandate are quickly expanding to other countries, industries, items and services. In China, e-commerce sites such as Tmall now sell Toms' shoes, starting at 280 yuan ($43). Meanwhile, domestic social enterprises are cropping up from the urban landscapes of Beijing to the mountains of southwest China.

Conscious consumption 

One such enterprise is Mantra, set to formally launch from its Beijing headquarters in April. Mantra's tagline is "look good, do good," and relies on a similar platform as Toms. Anyone who buys a pair of Mantra sunglasses, priced at 580 yuan ($90), will pay for a pair of prescription reading glasses for impoverished children in Yunnan via Mantra's sister non-profit organization, Education in Sight (EIS).

Yunnan Province is where Andrew Shirman, CEO and founder of EIS, and Sam Waldo, his business partner and co-founder of Mantra, worked as educators, so they had first-hand knowledge of the challenges that poorer, rural schools face. The two Americans--now long-term residents in China--served as Teach for China fellows from 2010-12. That experience taught them that 80 percent of typical classroom learning is visual, meaning that students who cannot see or cannot see well fall behind class, causing their grades to suffer and confidence to drop. That leads to higher dropout rates, allowing the cycle of poverty to continue.

"I realized early on that vision had a huge impact on my students' entire life outcomes," said Shirman in an interview with Beijing Review . "In China, over 30 million rural students suffer from uncorrected poor vision. Despite the country's incredible economic achievements over the past few decades, there is a growing gap in education between rural and urban students. Giving free glasses to students in need is one of the most powerful tools we have for combating educational inequality around the world."

Shirman shared the story of Dong Youming, who was a seventh grade student at Yongbao Middle School in Yunnan when Teach for China fellows first met him. Despite possessing academic curiosity, Dong had poor grades throughout the year and was labeled as a "bad student" because of his weak performance. Halfway through the school year, Dong was "losing faith" in his education, and was ready to drop out.

When EIS delivered glasses to him in the spring, Dong could see clearly in class for the first time. This straightforward but critical change fundamentally altered his academic trajectory, and by the end of the year, he was among the top eight students in his class.

"Our work is currently focused in the poorest regions of rural China because children there face adversity in every element of their education," Shirman emphasized. "Many live without guardians and have parents that live 1,000 miles away to work to raise money and support their children."

The organization's current activities are focused in Baoshan and Deqin in Yunnan, with EIS programs managed by staff native to where they work. They have partnered with the local government, school administrators, doctors and teachers to schedule eye exams on campuses during school hours. Those free exams ensure that all students have an opportunity to get their vision properly tested. The social enterprise then delivers the correct prescription eyeglasses to students in need, matched with instructions on how to care for and when to wear them.

According to EIS, it has already delivered 11,289 eyeglasses to resource-poor students and educated more than 76,000 on proper eye care through a mix of corporate sponsorship and direct fundraising. Mantra was formed in part to help EIS build capacity for expansion to more counties, and perhaps eventually to other regions in China.

Helping further afield 

The Yoganda Project, based in Beijing, was founded by Taozi Tree Yoga and its proprietor, yoga instructor Theresa Pauline. The project sells brightly colored bags of various sizes and shapes that are handmade by widowed women in Uganda. Pauline, who also goes by her Chinese name, Taozi, was inspired to start the project after seeing the extreme poverty in parts of Africa.

Although she lives in China, Pauline made a return trip to Uganda in 2014, this time with a professional tailor who spent four weeks teaching a small group of then-unemployed widowed women the skills to sew and assemble the Yoganda bag and other products. After Taozi Tree Yoga crowdfunded the purchase of sewing machines and locally sourced fabrics, the participating trainees are now successfully employed through the project. Proceeds from each bag's sale, which includes information such as the name of the woman who made it and her personal story, then support like-minded projects in Uganda to help other widowed women.

"Our employees are desperate to succeed and to do well so that they can support their families," Pauline told Beijing Review . "The Yoganda Project has offered them an opportunity to do so and it has the potential to totally transform the way that they and their families live."

The Yoganda Project works in cooperation with Musana, a community development organization whose goal is "to see rural communities in Uganda develop using sustainable solutions that give hope and dignity to the most vulnerable." The organization therefore "works to eliminate dependency by giving the community full participation and ownership in paving the way forward."

Pauline often tells the story of Fatina, a 36-year-old widow with eight children. Fatina rents one bedroom of a house in Iganga, Uganda, and lives there with all of her children. She has only been able to provide school fees for her 16-year-old son, so her other seven children are not receiving any form of education. When asked about how she expects her job working for the Yoganda Project to change her life, Fatina said that she hopes to put more of her children in school and to have her own home one day. "When speaking to Fatina I [once] again saw how deeply poverty impacts the community and how drastically one job could potentially improve the lives of so many," said Pauline.

Taozi Tree Yoga focuses its sales of Yoganda products in China to yoga enthusiasts, Chinese and expats alike, as well as showcasing the products in yoga studios and online. The products have been featured on China Central Television, the country's state-run television network, and Pauline often spends weekends retailing the bags at Beijing area markets that focus on high-quality, handmade crafts--places in which she said she is likely to find consumers willing to support such a cause.

While the country has seen well-documented gains in increasing the standards of living of its population, as well as lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty over a span of a few decades, China is still grappling with how to help its 70 million citizens still living below its defined poverty line. But as the world's most populous country, boasting the second largest economy globally, the potential for charitable giving and socially responsible purchasing is enormous. The question remains to what extent social enterprises both at home and abroad tap into this potential.

Untapped potential 

While the country has seen well-documented gains in increasing the standards of living of its population, as well as lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty over a span of a few decades, China is still grappling with how to help its 70 million citizens still living below its defined poverty line. But as the world's most populous country, boasting the second largest economy globally, the potential for charitable giving and socially responsible purchasing is enormous. The question remains to what extent social enterprises both at home and abroad tap into this potential.

Already, whether it is domestic or foreign companies operating here, the percentage of charitable donations coming from China is growing. Goldman Sachs for example, a prominent multinational investment firm, has staff in Beijing dedicated solely to managing its corporate social responsibility work in the Asia-Pacific region.

An employee of Goldman Sachs told Beijing Review  that the company has committed in excess of $1.7 billion to philanthropic initiatives globally since 2008. In China, their work is centered around the 10,000 Women initiative that provides business and management education, mentoring and networking to female entrepreneurs around the world. Since the initiative launched in 2008, programs have been established in Beijing, Hangzhou, Chengdu and Kunming, with more than 2,200 scholars across China having completed the program so far.

While corporate giving and buy-one-give-one models can rightly be met with skepticism regarding true impact in alleviating the underlying causes of poverty, savvy businesses realize the positive impact adopting social responsibility measures can have on their own profits and reputations, often called the "triple bottom line" theory. First coined in 1994 by John Elkington, the founder of a British consultancy called SustainAbility, the idea acts as a three-part accounting framework with social, environmental (or ecological) and financial components. Many organizations now use the measures, often described as "people, planet and profit," to evaluate their performance and social impact.

According to a 2014 survey report by Neilsen, a global research firm, many companies are "making a conscious effort to put sustainable practices into action. They're well aware that doing so not only helps the environment and society, it can also create goodwill for their reputations and contribute positively to their brands' health and performance."

Moreover, more than half (55 percent) of the consumer respondents in Nielsen's corporate social responsibility survey said they are willing to pay extra for products and services from companies that are committed to positive social and environmental impact--an increase from 50 percent in 2012 and 45 percent in 2011. Respondents in the Asia-Pacific region exceeded the global average, coming in at 64 percent, a 9-percent increase since 2011.

While the triple bottom line concept is not new, many businesses have yet to fully recognize the importance of being socially--and increasingly environmentally--conscious. And in order for social enterprises marketing do-good products to succeed, they also need to cultivate consumer demand for such items. Is China ready to lead on both sides of this coin?

"The buy-one-give-one model is almost omnipresent in the [United] States these days, but there is almost nothing like it in China. But we know people are ready for it," said EIS's Shirman. "People want to express themselves with these socially responsible purchases, especially young people in urban centers like Beijing and Shanghai. So we are creating products to meet that expectation."

Copyedited by Bryan Michael Galvan 

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