Friday, May 7, 2010

A New Perspective on "Charity"

About a year ago, I joined the Junior Board of Directors for StreetWise Magazine, a Chicago publication sold by homeless and near-homeless vendors. The point of the organization is to provide vendors with an entrepreneurial solution to getting back on their feet. Vendors purchase the magazine from StreetWise for $.75 and sell it on the street for $2.00, a transaction that allows the vendor to gain not only an income, but job skills, a sense of pride in one's work and a community of support (StreetWise also helps vendors find permanent housing, job training, clothing, etc.).

Some of the vendors' stories are remarkable- such as the single father who once worked in marketing, saw his job moved out of the city, has sold the magazine for years now and has started a reading program at his son's school; or the single mother who sells the magazine every morning downtown, takes public transit to the StreetWise offices to work as an administrative assistant during the day, is getting her Associate's Degree at night and does it all in a wheelchair; or the vendor who wears a suit every day to sell his magazines because he takes that much pride in his work.

Though I'm attracted to StreetWise for its innovative approach to helping the homeless, it's not alone in trying to use a free-market approach to tackle an issue that usually gets characterized as a "charity case." Many of my friends have had to listen to my non-stop praise of the model created by Ira Magaziner for the Clinton Foundation. Magaziner and Bill Clinton faced the AIDS epidemic in Africa by acting as a broker of sorts, finding a pricing point for retroviral drugs that African governments could afford for their affected populations and then promising pharmaceutical companies a higher demand if they could meet that point. Though it seems simple enough, this was a novel approach and allowed the pharmaceutical companies to do more good work because it wasn't giving anything away for free. The article through which I learned about the Clinton Foundation's approach (which has been replicated to deal with a number of other social issues) postulated that this would be the new face of philanthropy: applying tried-and-true business solutions to what have been, traditionally, public sector problems.

Throughout the world, micro-lending organizations have popped up, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurial spirits in developing countries. However, you don't have to go abroad to find organization using this charity-through-business approach, there are some local Chicago organizations using similar models. A recent StreetWise symposium was catered by Sweet Miss Givings, a bakery started by Chicago House. SMG caters conferences, events and meetings, is run partially by formerly homeless interns affected by HIV/AIDS, and gives 50% of its profits back to that community. The CARA Program also runs Cleanslate Chicago, a recycling and city beautification program that allows homeless and near-homeless workers the opportunity to learn job skills and have a resume builder by working to clean up parkways and roads and promoting recycling.

We will always (sadly) need organizations like homeless shelters, religious charities and soup kitchens to help deal with critical situations through traditional charity models. However, this new model of organization is a very interesting one and, perhaps, one that more people can get behind. Consider using SMG to cater your company's next event. Consider buying a magazine from your local StreetWise vendor. Consider ways in which your company might partner with, and maybe even benefit from, a program like Cleanslate. This isn't your grandmother's charity model and, perhaps, that could make all the difference.

No comments: