On the day that Bill Gates announced that he was beginning a transition from the day to day operation of Microsoft in order to spend more time working with his Foundation, I spent the morning listening to Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry’s fame, talking about Social Responsibility and Radical Business.

Philanthropic entrepreneurs are nothing new, of course. Early industrialist Andrew Carnegie spent the first half of his life building a fortune and the second half giving it away. As a result, thousands of cities and small towns across America were the recipients of a public library.

Celebrities, too, have done more than just lend their names to causes they care about. Elizabeth Taylor was an early advocate for AIDS research while Paul Newman created a business expressly to fund charitable projects.

When Time magazine named Bill and Melinda Gates and Bono as their Persons of the Year, it  was a tribute to the possibilities of what can be accomplished when a caring spirit accompanies wealth and fame.

“If you want to change the world,” Paul Hawken advised, “don’t join the Peace Corps. Start a business.” Business can, indeed, be a vehicle for social change. Or it can be a platform.

As I  look at the history of social responsibility, entrepreneurs seem to have played a leading role.  In the small town where I grew up, it was the local business community that spearheaded charitable projects. Fundraisers as well as pitching in with labor were common events.  If Habitat for Humanity had been around, I’m sure we’d have seen our small town leaders swinging a hammer.

On the other hand, there have always been folks who have accumulated wealth and made charitable contributions more to impress others than being moved by their hearts.

When I look at the entrepreneurs I admire, the spirit of giving seems to be a common denominator.

So what about small businessowners who haven’t got millions to give away? Silly question, huh?

One of my favorite ideas comes from Barbara Sher who urges people to follow her lead and practice what she calls Plop Philanthropy. Simply put, that means looking for something that needs doing and plopping yourself down to do it.

Even before Ben & Jerry’s was a big booming business, they found numerous ways to contribute to their community. For instance, they decided to purchase all their milk and cream from Vermont  farmers who agreed not to use bovine growth hormone with their cattle. As Ben & Jerry’s grew and prospered, so did the family farms around them.

Rick Steves, who actively supports organizations working to end hunger, has also made a huge contribution to small family businesses simply by recommending them in his guidebooks.

My personal favorite kind of charity tends to favor organizations that help create self-sufficiency. I’ve been a longtime supporter of the work of Heifer International and Kiva who have done stunning work helping people around the world become entrepreneurial.

Helping others thrive through their own efforts does more than just put food on the table: it builds opportunities for service and satisfaction. Those are not small achievements.

Being a change agent does not require huge amounts of wealth, but it does require caring and commitment. Now, more than ever, we who inhabit the global community need to find ways to solve problems, inspire others, and put our hearts to work in making this a safe and healthy place to live, love, work and create the future.

As Anita Roddick reminds us, “If  we don’t  act, who will?”


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