I am currently reading a book by Dr. Muhammad Yunus titled Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, and I am left mesmerized both by the brilliance of Dr. Yunus himself and the beauty of the idea which he proposes in his book–the idea of social businesses. Let me start by providing a summary of what Yunus means by a social business. He defines it as an enterprise that has investors who recoup their initial investment but who do not receive dividends or profit from their investment. Thus instead of making their investment based on the company that is most likely to offer them the highest, most secure return, they choose based on the company that offers the greatest social or environmental benefits. Social businesses exist for the sole purpose of addressing social and environmental problems, but they are not charities. Instead, they must achieve self-sufficiency by selling low-cost products and services, or through a myriad of other methods that enable the organizations to pay back the investor’s initial investment, to achieve financial sustainability and to achieve the mission of the organization. In essence, then, what Yunus is proposing is a blending of for-profit and non-profit models, but in a way that I have not seen in the past. He suggests that social businesses will compete with traditional profit maximizing businesses (PMBs) on quality, price, availability, etc. He goes on to propose new innovations such as a stock market for social businesses where the company’s stock price reflects its ability to achieve social good, rather than it’s ability to make profit at any cost.
Perhaps if this idea were to come from anyone but a Nobel Peace prize winner and the founder of the Grameen Bank and the Grameen family of companies in Bangladesh–one of the most remarkable group of organizations ever established–it would be seen as naive. But to illustrate the power of the idea, Yunus starts his book by describing how he convinced the CEO of Dannone Group, one of the largest companies in the world, to launch a social business in Bangladesh that would focus on providing low-cost, healthful food products the poor, rural Bangladeshis. Within a year of proposing the idea, Grameen Dannone, as the new company was called, had completed an environmentally friendly yogurt factory, and were selling their nutritious yogurt through Grameen borrowers. Dannone fronted half the start-up costs and, aside from getting back its initial investment, will make no money on the deal. All profits earned by the company will be reinvested in the company to lower prices or to expand into new markets.