Laura Scher's ideals were developed at a young age. Growing up in Clifton, N.J., during the 1970s, she recalls recycling long before curbside pickup and working on local elections alongside her mother. Her family's devotion to social causes has had an indelible influence on Scher and how she views doing business.
As co-founder of Working Assets, a provider of long-distance, credit card, and wireless services, she's combined doing business with doing good by making it her company's mission to donate a portion of revenue from its services to a large menu of nonprofit groups. Besides drumming up millions in donations each year -- since its founding in 1985, Working Assets has donated over $47 million -- her company enables ordinary people to become activists.
In the summer of 2000, Scher took her activism online, building WorkingForChange.com, a website the company created to alert the online community to current news, urgent issues, and activism affecting the world in profound ways. Scher talks about the website and how it's emboldened the company's efforts to create citizen activists who wield influence on the decisions made in D.C.
In an interview with the Inc. 500 Alumni Network, Scher talks about her company's efforts, its activist website, and the important role social responsibility should play in entrepreneurial companies.
Q: What was your primary goal when you launched WorkingForChange.com?
Scher: To increase the political impact of Working Assets. How could we do that? Through housing the best selection of alternative journalism on our site and providing a vibrant activism section. We receive about 500,000 unique visitors a month, and just last year  we generated over 4 million letters, e-mails and phone calls supporting issues we communicate through our website and phone bills -- which feature urgent issues that our customers can act on by checking a box to send a low-cost letter or making a free phone call .
ActForChange.com is the activism component of our site. It's a free service that allows members to take action instantly and weigh in on fast-moving issues of the day, such as halting drilling in the Arctic refuge or blocking attempts to gut campaign finance laws. One of the challenges of the Working Assets phone bill has always been that you have to pick an action that has a fairly long life. On the website, a phone call or e-mail can effect change in 24 hours. The website allowed us to broaden our activism. Members can also sign up to receive our ActForChange e-newsletter, which updates activists on the latest issues with links so they can take action instantly.
Q: How has the website changed since it first launched?
Scher: The numbers have grown in leaps and bounds. From 4 million hits in 2002, we now have three times that number. When you go to WorkingForChange now, you'll find more columnists, more activism, and more easy ways to make a difference.
Q: How do you keep WorkingForChange.com vibrant and relevant?
Scher: Our site keeps visitors coming back, because our lively and provocative columnists and alternative news, cartoons and commentary change daily. We pick the best of alternative media that you won't find in the mainstream. And our activism continues to grow, as does our impact.
Q: Do WorkingForChange visitors become customers of your other services?
Scher: All the time. Although WorkingForChange is primarily a news and activism site, visitors who like our values will seek out our other products and services through links from the WorkingForChange homepage. The website is also a useful tool for our Working Assets customers, who can access member services, like changing a rate plan, ordering a CitizenLetter or viewing their Internet bills.
But the primary goal of the site is to inspire action. In past months, e-mails from ActForChange participants helped convince Congress to probe ethics charges against Tom DeLay; persuade California Gov. Schwarzenegger to back off privatization of the state's public pension system; and pressure New Mexico's legislature to fund solar power for state buildings. Recently, a popular action urged Bush to fire his senior advisor, Karl Rove.
Part of our mission of social change is to invest in opportunities to help people make their voices heard. If we didn't have the website, we wouldn't have had the 4 million calls, e-mails, faxes and letters.
Q: Do you have plans to extend your company's commitment to social responsibility?
Scher: Right now we're trying out a program with our credit-card customers that we're calling Fueling the Future. We're asking them if they'd like us to plant trees for them each time they buy gasoline with our card. If you're not a customer, you can sign up for the card and choose the same option.
Q: Besides Ben & Jerry's, are there other socially responsible companies you partner with?
Scher: Right now, if you look at the website you can sign up for Mother Jones. You can order organic flowers. We also promote socially minded books and DVDs through our site.
Q: Has your incitement to action had any measurable impact on what's going on in D.C. and local governments around the nation?
Definitely. Take the Clear Skies initiative. Through our customers' calls and letters, we were able to stall in committee a package of loopholes that would have let coal-fired utilities emit tons more toxic pollutants into our air, and significantly weaken the Clean Air Act. And our customers pressured the House and Senate to force the EPA to abandon its plan to ease standards for the treatment of sewage during wet weather, which would have let wastewater systems "blend" partially treated, pathogen-filled sewage with treated wastewater, and release the noxious mix directly into our lakes, rivers, and coastal waters.
Q: You take a decidedly liberal stance on a number of hot-button issues. Have any customers been turned off by your stance on a particular issue?
We donate to a variety of issues. Customers get to nominate organizations to receive funding, and then they get to vote on how the money is allocated, so they help decide which groups to fund and where the money goes. We give people a lot of choice and offer a lot of participation. We find that since we fund 50 groups each year, our customers can always find groups or issues that are close to their hearts.
Q: How big of a priority should social responsibility be to entrepreneurs?
It's important to understand that social responsibility is always a good business decision. Most companies don't have obvious "values" the way Working Assets does. Instead, it means having the conviction and the knowledge to prove that decisions based on good values makes good financial sense.
As entrepreneurs we're given a wonderful opportunity to let our companies reflect our goals. It's a lot easier for us to do this than a large company. We'd love for large companies to emulate this. But I think small companies have more freedom to do these things and can still have a really big impact.
A business that decides to do something locally can have an impact, even if it's not in as large a scale. What you want to do is ask yourself, "What scale can I achieve?" Our first year, Working Assets gave away $32,000. Now we're giving away $3, $4, $5 million a year. And people are copying us, which is wonderful. You can start on a small scale and it can grow to something much larger. What I think is so interesting, is that it can become something big.
Thinking about social responsibility can mean that you're considering the long-term impact of your actions. For example, what if you adopt a local high school? Why is that a good business decision? First, it lets employees have an activity to feel good about. Second, people going to the high school are future customers and employees.
Behind many socially responsible ideas, you can find really strong business reasons to do them. Without that, it may not make sense to adopt a practice. But given our success, it's clear that you can do well by doing good.