At a time when our world is facing unprecedented challenges, from climate change to political polarization to a global pandemic, entrepreneurs and nongovernmental organization (NGO) leaders cannot afford to operate in silos. Entrepreneurs possess resourcefulness, creativity, and initiative; heads of nonprofit organizations are equipped with depth of knowledge, purpose, and the patient determination that comes with that purpose. Together, these partners can turbocharge impact if they properly calibrate their respective contributions to create new social enterprises.
A social enterprise can be a business with a social mission or a civic effort with an entrepreneurial culture and instincts. When a social enterprise is structured as a business, it can channel market forces to advance the social good while building a self-sustaining enterprise. When a social enterprise is structured as a nonprofit organization, its funding engine relies on donations instead of a commercial stream of income; but it moves more swiftly, acts more resourcefully, and may have a more innovative change model than does a traditional NGO.
The healthy tension between business entrepreneurs and NGO leaders who partner to create new organizations is important to navigate with balance. Founders of successful businesses can share how entrepreneurial grit, creativity, and an "ownership mentality" propel social missions, but they also need to have the humility to recognize their own limitations when operating in a different ecosystem. That said, if taken too far, a business leader's disengagement can deprive a fledgling enterprise of vital energy and tools when it most needs them, and even doom the startup social enterprise to fail. I learned this lesson most recently when setting up an organization called Feed the Truth; our goal to ensure its total independence led to my conscious lack of involvement, and resulted in the cause initially going sideways.
This all started in 2015, when KIND Snacks received a letter from the FDA advising that we needed to remove the term "healthy" from our wrappers because we had violated a regulation on the term. While we immediately complied, our research showed the regulation to be outdated. KIND filed a Citizen Petition to urge the FDA to update its definition of the term "healthy," resulting in the FDA reversing its decision and recognizing that KIND could use its original terminology. More important, the FDA suspended the old definition and said it would revise it.
Shortly after, our team at KIND learned that the sugar industry had known for decades about its negative impact on health but had chosen to deflect its responsibility by intentionally obfuscating the issue and pointing the finger at overall fat content. Whether because of special-interest agendas or outdated science, the FDA's definition of "healthy" falsely equated unsaturated heart-healthy fats found in avocados, salmon, and nuts with harmful saturated ones.
While KIND had been vindicated, I personally felt that much more needed to be done to clean up a system allowing industry lobbyists to achieve short-term goals at the expense of people's health. In consultation and partnership with foremost nutrition policy experts with unassailable credentials in the space -- including Michael Jacobson, Marion Nestle, and Debra Eschmeyer -- I helped seed a new organization called Feed the Truth.
Recognizing that my position in the food industry could bring Feed the Truth's impartiality into question, I set strict guardrails to limit my involvement in the organization's decision-making. While these boundaries protected Feed the Truth from my input on policymaking decisions (which should be based on the judgment of scientists, registered dietitians, and nutrition policy experts), they also boxed me out to such a degree that I was not able to help the organization when it needed me most.
For example, when Feed the Truth set out to establish its independent board and executive director, I could have leveraged my network, access to human resources, relationships, and track record to help the organization get off the ground. But to ensure my independence, a group of busy professionals with full-time jobs had to spend their "free time" volunteering to establish a board and identify an executive director. The process wound up taking four years to complete. Once an executive director was finally in place, the organization lacked a "speed to market" toolkit, which resulted in a full additional year with little-to-no progress. As a result, an enterprise with an urgent mission lost five years when it could have been driving impact.
By strictly maintaining my independence, I missed other opportunities to add value, such as by sharing guerrilla marketing tactics. Having years of experience at KIND launching creative campaigns to compete against large industry conglomerates, I could have helped Feed the Truth level the playing field against the tens of millions of dollars that special interests spend funding narrow industry agendas.
I also learned that an enterprise's words and actions will always speak on a founder's behalf, regardless of whether that founder is heavily involved in the organization's work. By keeping at arm's length, I was unable to imbue Feed the Truth's work with the values and tonality that have both defined me and contributed to the success of the causes in which I'm involved. Across both business and civic ventures, I have found it most effective to be respectful and listen, and try to build coalitions and consensus -- even when it's hard to do so (a concept championed by our most recent initiative, Starts With Us). In contrast, Feed the Truth's messages employed an adversarial tonality that felt hollow and ineffective.
Most important, if an entrepreneur is wholly disengaged, he or she will not be able to help ensure focus and discipline. This can lead to mission creep, among one of the greatest pitfalls for any social enterprise. In Feed the Truth's case, when the organization finally launched, it supported campaigns on topics like "voting rights" and "minimum wage," which, while important, had nothing to do with seeking truth and transparency in nutrition policy.
It's not always the case that our insights are the right ones, and it is important to collaborate with nonprofit leaders who are experts in their fields. For example, when I conceived of the nonprofit Empatico, I had certain ideas about how to foster conversations among kids of different backgrounds. Thankfully, my team included former teachers and education professionals whose recalibration of our platform was essential to ensuring a more practical execution.
Understanding that business leaders have a critical role to play in collaborating with the nonprofit sector does not mean that we have all the answers; we should recognize that certain decisions are better handled by NGO leaders. The Feed the Truth board includes national leaders in food law, food policy, and child nutrition that I look forward to learning from. What it does mean is that we should proactively work to identify where and when we have a responsibility to draw on our unique toolkits to add value. Holding ourselves back could wind up hampering the social progress our world needs now more than ever.