Donating to charities has never been easier: these days, you can go to your favorite store and buy a pair of rain boots, coffee, glasses, or even condoms and your purchase triggers a donation to someone in need.
But back when TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie launched what was then just a shoe company in 2006, there weren't any of these so-called "one-for-one companies" making a splash on a national level. This model of giving is what helped TOMS gain traction--the idea that for every pair of shoes a TOMS customer purchased, a pair of shoes would go to a child in need, was something that every shopper could understand.
Mycoskie and Christy Turlington Burns, the former supermodel and co-founder of Every Mother Counts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving pregnancy and childbirth for women in developing countries, were on hand this week at Fast Company's 2015 Innovation Festival to talk about how to stay competitive in a world where social entrepreneurship is no longer a new concept. Here are two nuggets of advice they offered during their talk.
1. Be very picky about the companies you partner with, so as not to harm your own mission.
Turlington Burns learned quickly to spot disingenuous requests to work with her nonprofit. A dead giveaway? When the initial email comes from a marketing or PR department. She says it needs to be the founder or the most senior executive at a company who makes the first move, to make sure that their "intentions are clear and pure," and that the company isn't just looking for an easy way to generate feel-good PR.
Mycoskie has his own litmus test for checking out other ventures, especially now that TOMS has a Social Entrepreneurship Fund to invest in other socially conscious ventures. (The cash for the fund came from Bain Capital buying a 50 percent stake in TOMS last year for more than $300 million.) Mycoskie says he looks for two things when he's evaluating companies: Is the social mission really at the core of the business, or just something that's "to the side"? And how is the business trying to further the conversation about social entrepreneurship? One of the companies that's received funding from Mycoskie is ArtLifting, an online art marketplace for the homeless.
"I think it's an idea that has incredible opportunity and can spur other ideas about how we can work with our homeless population, which is a big problem in this country," Mycoskie says.
2. Continually invest in ways to tell your story creatively.
Last year, TOMS discovered through market research that around 50 percent of customers who have purchased a pair of their shoes didn't know that TOMS had a social mission. For Mycoskie, that was a wake-up call: just saying that TOMS has a "one-to-one model" was not enough.
Earlier this summer, the company launched a new "Virtual Reality Giving Program," in TOMS stores, in which customers can put on a virtual reality headset, and watch a 360-degree film that TOMS put together on one of its "giving trips" to Peru. Mycoskie says it allows customers, who aren't able to see what happens when TOMS donates shoes or glasses or bags to communities, to understand the impact of the company's giving model more than ever before.
Mycoskie acknowledged that now it's much harder for a social entrepreneur to get his or her message across than when TOMS first started. Not only were there fewer platforms on which to communicate a social message, but there also weren't as many businesses promoting this aspect of their business.
"I hope that, we'll look back 50 years from now, or 100 years, or maybe less, and see that the competitive advantage that TOMS has through our giving won't be an advantage any more--and that that's because every company will have a social benefit to their business."