How to be philanthropic while building your business

By Will Adoasi

Most of us want to help in some way: help society become fairer, provide opportunities for the disadvantaged, reduce environmental damage. We might do it through regular donations, working for organisations that share our values or by starting social businesses.

Social business is huge at the moment. Entrepreneurs are waking up to the realisation that their profits can go towards making a real social impact, sustainably, over the long-term. That is the kind of impact that lasts.

When I started Vitae London, I had the vision of the brand changing the world of fashion. The fashion industry can seem rather self-obsessed, but wanting to look good and wanting to do good aren’t incompatible.

But I also didn’t want it to be a vanity project – something that made me feel good but never made a real impact. That’s why we partnered with a local South African charity, House of Wells, that helps poor and orphaned children get into education.

When we asked what was stopping these kids from accessing free education, it came down to having the right school uniform. So, for every watch we sell we donate school uniforms, allowing these kids to go to school. Simple yet life-changing.

Getting to that point wasn’t as straightforward, however. If you’re looking to build a business with philanthropic aims, make sure you start out by considering these four things:

  1. Set tangible targets

If you want to stay focused and passionate through all the hard times, you need to set targets that are tangible. We aimed at distributing 1,000 in 2016 school uniform and ended up distributing 2,000. This meant we could celebrate and communicate this amazing achievement to our customers. Thanks to them, 2,000 children can access education, some for the first time!

  1. Be accountable

Even the best intentions can go awry under the pressures of modern business. You can be tempted to cut corners or compromise your ethics.

If you can, set up a board of trustees as soon as possible. A good board will keep you accountable to for the charity side of things. Not only will this help you maintain your philanthropic goals when times get tough, it also imbues customer confidence in your brand.

  1. Look into funding streams

One of the biggest challenges in keeping the philanthropic part of the business going is managing money. You need money to pay production costs, save money to grow and donate to your chosen cause. Balancing these three costs can sometimes put the business under considerable strain. Fortunately, there are lots of funding streams to look into that will help you through the early stages while maintaining your philanthropic goal.

Vitae was lucky enough to receive some funding from Richard Branson and Virgin, for example, and we’ve also recently launched on Indiegogo to help fund production costs of our new line. Look into funding streams, organisations and people who are aligned with your vision on how to improve the world. You’ll be surprised as to what you might find!

  1. End-to-end ethics

There’s no way around it: running a completely ethical business will cost you more than your less-ethical competitors – but you won’t be undoing the good work you are doing. The last thing you want to discover is that you’re exploiting workers and children while trying to do good. The negative press alone would probably end you. All of the factories we use, for example, are independently audited for health and safety, fair pay and no child labour.

I’m often asked if I feel threatened by this rise in social businesses, but actually I’m a great supporter. I think that more businesses helping good causes can only be positive for everyone. And with information about businesses’ ethical practices being published online, I hope that even more businesses will become transparent, accountable and ethical.

Will Adoasi is founder of Vitae London, an ethical watch brand that offers fashionable watches at affordable prices in order to advance social justice.

Vitae London works within several South African provinces where education is free, but much of the youth are unable to take advantage of such learning opportunities due to their lack of access to school equipment, such as uniforms and shoes, which are required to attend school. Each watch purchased from Vitae London’s classic range of watches supplies a child with two sets of school uniform, a bag and footwear to see them through the year.

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