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?”


Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield like to joke that they became friends because they were the two slowest, fattest kids in their seventh grade gym class. That friendship continued on through high school and was interrupted only by their individual attempts at going to college. Ben dropped out first and became a potter; Jerry ended his college career when he failed to gain admission to medical school. With bleak prospects on both sides, the two got together and decided to start a business.

Since they were both enthusiastic eaters, they decided on a food enterprise. They considered bagels, then pizza, but settled on ice cream thinking it would be something they could make themselves. They also decided to relocate to a college town and ended up in Burlington, Vermont—a place that seemed unlikely to generate much interest in ice cream during its long, hard winters. They rented an abandoned, unheated gas station and began whipping up their frozen treats. 

The first few years were difficult. Besides learning the business, Ben and Jerry had to deal with regular breakdowns of their used ice cream-making equipment. But it was also a time when they honed their folksy, humorous approach to doing business. Unwittingly, they became a classic example of a bootstrapped business.

Paul Hawken, an enthusiastic advocate of bootstrapping, explains why this is the path to building a strong enterprise: “Bootstrap businesses will act like a malnourished child. With low overhead, frugal means and fragile budgets, you can’t buy your way out of problems. You have to learn your way out. The creativity and tenacity you have to develop will make it hard for you to be put out of business.”

These self-proclaimed hippie capitalists believed that good vibes made for good business. They recall, “Right from the beginning, even though the business wasn’t making any money, we were always thinking up new excuses to give away ice cream. When we opened we had our Grand Opening Special: buy one, get one free. Then we started giving away cones at random to people waiting in the ice cream line. Then we had free cones for all mothers on Mother’s Day. Visibly expectant mothers got two. To promote winter sales, we held the Penny Off per Celsius Degree Below Zero Winter Extravaganza, thereby turning a liability (being located in a very cold winter town) into an asset.” 

As the little business grew, the founders delighted in giving their ice cream whimsical names like Chunky Monkey, Chubby Hubby and Phish Food. Their Web site says, “Some folks think there’s a huge difference between fun-related stuff and work-related stuff. Whatever you’ve been led to believe, we’d love to show you all the fun stuff we actually get paid to create. Which, when you think about it, is what Ben & Jerry’s is all about.” 

As if inventing Cherry Garcia wasn’t a big enough contribution to life on this planet, they tithed 7 1/2 percent of their pretax profits to the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, which then distributed it to not-for-profit organizations and charities, making it one of the most generous corporate donation programs around. 

At benjerry.com you’ll find more of their ideas about the role of responsible business and, even, a useful article called 50 Ways to Promote Peace. Visit their site and you’ll come away thinking that the ice cream was just their attention-getting device.

You need to integrate the needs of your heart, your mind, and your soul in order to achieve happiness and contentment. Those needs cannot be met through money. ~ Ben Cohen