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Profits + Altruism: The Good, the Bad, or the Ugly?

July 16, 2009

The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to make self-interest serve the wider interest.”  Bill Gates, in a speech at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. 

A company I am affiliated with, Amber Alert Registry (AAR), recently got a bit of flak for being a for-profit business.  Their perceived crime?  Making money off of a secure website where parents or caregivers can register their children in order to provide law enforcement agencies instant access to the child’s vital stats (pictures, detailed description, parental contact info, medical alerts, etc) in the event the child goes missing.  The apparent gripe was that “profit” and “helping kids” shouldn’t go together. 

Never mind the fact that AAR gives back to the community by providing the service through charitable organizations to low-income kids at high risk for being displaced  (such as homeless families or those who live in hurricane zones).  Or that the company also helps schools raise money by paying the school $5 for each family that registers through their school fund-raising program.  Oh, and never mind the fact that they only charge $19.95 per year (additional siblings are $4.95 each).  Personally I think that’s pretty cheap for parental peace of mind, and if they really wanted to gouge folks they could ask for – and get – a lot more.

Why begrudge a company that “does good” a profit?  Perhaps because traditionally such companies tended to be non-profits.  Things are changing though, and more and more entrepreneurs are using their businesses in a philanthropic way.  In a 2006 New York Times article on this new breed of altruistic businesspeople, author Stephanie Strom says they are “driven to do good and have their profit, too.”

I recently blogged about a wonderful website, Kids are Heroes.  In his own blog (Socially Conscious Companies: Good or Bad?), Gabe O’Neill, who co-founded KaH with his daughter, mulls over the distaste some people have for companies that combine altruism with making money.  He makes the excellent – and obvious – point that Kids are Heroes can make an even greater impact once the company is actually funded.  O’Neill clearly has a passion for making the world a better place and jumped at the chance to take KaH to a whole new level of exposure through Richard Branson’s latest philanthropic venture, PitchTV.  O’Neill must make a mean two-minute pitch, because Kids are Heroes won a spot on the Virgin website and Virgin Atlantic’s in-flight entertainment program, created to provide entrepreneurs with a “captive” audience of businesspeople and potential investors.

I do hope someone with deep pockets and an even deeper desire to help others gets their interest piqued by the Kids are Heroes story.  Because I think O’Neill and his daughter, and all of the inspiring kids featured on their website, could use their own financial hero. 

Making money off of making the world a better place?  Sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 16, 2009 1:26 pm

    I appreciate the support you have given us in this article. The more research I do the more I see people are not only opening their minds up to this kind of company, but they are also starting them. I doubt we have convinced everyone yet at this point however. It will be interesting to see what challenges unfold in front of us as we push forward. -Gabe

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