Michael Pirron calls Impact Makers (#463 on the 2014 Inc. 5000) the Newman's Own of IT consulting companies. The $10.3 million business, based in Richmond, Virginia, has no owners, is governed by a volunteer board of directors, and donates all profits to charity. Yet while employing Impact Makers potentially burnishes clients' corporate social responsibility creds, the business competes not on doing good but on being good at what it does.
A lot of people think I am a trust-fund kid because I started a company that gives away all its profits. But I grew up behind the cash register at my parents' small gift shop. At the University of Virginia I majored in business with a minor in sociology. After graduation I took a job with Anderson Consulting so I could travel. I worked for companies like Philip Morris in Switzerland and a steel manufacturer in post-apartheid South Africa. I was good at what I did but hated the clients. And I thought, what if you could take Andersen Consulting and turn it into a social enterprise? Later on I wrote a research paper on the subject when I was doing my MBA.
I was working as a project manager for BroadReach Healthcare, which runs HIV/AIDS programs in Africa. I decided it would be a better career-fit for me serving them as a contractor. So I created Impact Makers, and BroadReach became my first client. It was me, a laptop, and $50 in the bank.
Impact Makers is a sociology experiment. We are a for-profit consulting company with no shareholders, governed by a volunteer board of directors, and all our profits over the life of the company go to charity. The BHAG in our strategic plan is by the end of 2017 to be making a $1 million a year impact in the communities where we are doing work.
By charter, our charitable partners must be secular, apolitical, 501c3, local organizations, with a mission of helping people help themselves. Regardless of our profitability we give them each a monthly minimum of $2000. We also give them pro bono consulting to help them be more effective at lower cost. We currently have four partners. One provides free pharmaceuticals to free-clinic patients across Virginia; one helps kids with chronic conditions and their families navigate the social-services and health-care sectors; one is a community center that provides education programs for kids; and one teaches project management in high schools so graduates can get jobs with good salaries and not end up flipping burgers.
As we expand and have a big enough book of business in other cities we’ll open virtual offices there, with local boards of advisors who will choose local partners for us to work with. Presently we are doing a lot of work in Hartford, Connecticut, and hope to add a fifth charitable partner there by the end of the year.
For Newman’s Own and other business-to-consumer companies there is this whole market of conscientious consumers for whom organic brands or fair-trade brands or being a B Corp. is meaningful. I don’t think corporations are there yet. So for the most part, like any other consulting company, we win work based on capability and price. That said, our model has helped us in three ways. One, it has gotten us in the door in the first place because it is such a unique and interesting story. Two, it can be a tiebreaker, all else being equal in a competitive bid. Three, in a few instances people in an organization have reached out to us and said, “I really love your model. Let me help you write a proposal for my boss, the CIO.” So we have actually had volunteer salespeople help us get work.
IT consulting is high-turnover industry, but in eight years we have had just five people leave not for cause. Our model has helped us. You get paid the same. You do the same work you have always done. And you can make a community impact at the same time. I think that is the biggest game changer. It’s a group of middle-class professionals making the same impact as mid-sized foundations in town. That’s totally disruptive.
As told to Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan.