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François Couillard going Beyond Philanthropy: creating Social Business

François Couillard has enjoyed being a member of ebbf almost since its foundation back in 1990, his business experience spans both sides of the Atlantic with experience in a number of corporates and then in COO positions in large humanitarian organizations both in Europe and Canada, he now sends his views on creating social business as he is once again about to cross the Atlantic: from Canada to Austria.

Charitable giving is being revolutionized at both ends of the spectrum of giving: large new charities are emerging, thanks to the generosity of the mega-rich, like Bill Gates and at the same time, micro-charities are popping-up the world over, fuelled by new technologies and the rise of social media. I would like to argue that one of the most promising ways to address our most pressing social and environmental challenges is through business. Not traditional business, driven by shareholder value maximization, but a new emerging form motivated by the desire to do social good: social business.

A new movement is emerging the world over. It relies on the power of social innovation to create new models of business that embed revenue-generating activities into their operations. These undertakings help reduce dependency on donors. Social business brings together the best of two worlds: the operational effectiveness and accountability of a business and the noble social purpose and values of non-profit organizations. If you work in business, you might think the concept of “social” business should be left to the Occupy Wall Street movement. I invite you to reconsider. The 3rd Global Social Business Summit is being held November 10-11 in Vienna. This two day event is organized by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Pr. Yunus and the Grameen Creative Lab. It will be kicked-off by Secretary-General of United Nations Ban Ki-moon. Executives of the world’s largest corporations will be in attendance. Last year one of the panels had CEOs from Danone, Adidas and BASF arguing the virtues of social business. The list of corporate participants is ever broadening: ArcelorMittal, Crédit Agricole, GE Heatlhcare, Volkswagen, Intel, SAP it seems they are genuinely motivated to find ways to “create shared value”, to use an expression made popular by Harvard’s Michael Porter.

I spent the first 20 years of my career climbing the business corporate ladder. I became somewhat disenchanted by the constant and elusive quest to make more and more money for shareholders- often at the detriment of other stakeholders, like the employees themselves. I decided to give the non-profit world a try. As COO of two of Canada’s largest non-profits, The Canadian Red Cross and VON Canada, I discovered a fascinating new world where social mission trumps all. I was moved by the dedication and hard work of the countless volunteers and front-line staff who devote themselves to the needs of others with very little, if any, financial rewards. I was also saddened to observe the daily struggles to stay afloat financially and to reconcile operational effectiveness with lofty social missions. The near complete dependency on government funding, private grants and donations is a test to the long-term viability of many of the social programs we take for granted. In my quest to find an alternative, I stumbled on the work of Pr. Yunus and discovered the world of social entrepreneurs and social innovation.

Various models of social enterprises exist; from pure social businesses that rely solely on the revenues generated by their activities to achieve their purpose, like Grameen-Danone in Bangladesh, to social enterprises relying on a mix of grants, donations and revenue generation. What they share in common is the harnessing of the entrepreneurial spirit of individuals for the greater benefit of society. Business becomes the vehicle through which creativity and vigour are expressed. Our bi-polar view of the world, split between business and non-profits is about to get blurred by a flurry of new alternative entities. The hope is that social business can bring financial sustainability models to help address our most pressing social and environmental needs, guided by the same moral compass as the charitable sector.

François Couillard is currently CEO of CAMRTand former COO of the Canadian Red Cross and VON Canada and serves on Canada’s Advisory Council on National Security. Prior to working in the non-profit sector he had a successful 20 year career in business in Canada and abroad. He is president at Strategies & Direction Consultants. He can be reached at

You can read his regular blog at . Twitter: @couillardf

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