Why Charities Are Launching For-Profit Businesses
By Liz Brody
Kenton Lee was traveling through Nairobi when he had, as he says jokingly, “the only idea I’ve ever had.” He saw an orphan girl’s shoes that were way too small; someone had cut off the front so her toes could stick through. “Right there, I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if there were shoes that could grow?” Then he went home to Boise, Idaho, developed a shoe that expands five sizes, and founded the nonprofit Because International — which today, 12 years later, has distributed more than 250,000 pairs worldwide.
And somewhere along the way, an unexpected thing happened. American parents started asking to buy his expandable shoes for their growing kids. He saw the value of it: If he sold shoes, he might not have to do as many fund-raising dinners and golf tournaments. But he wasn’t passionate about selling. “That’s not what we do,” he’d reply. “We’re a nonprofit.”
Meanwhile, another nonprofit called Grameen Foundation reached a similar juncture. It had built an app to help Colombian farmers improve their productivity, and it worked in places without wi-fi. Other organizations asked if they could use it, which signaled to Grameen that the tool could be more useful as a business. But Grameen wasn’t set up for that. It’s a global nonprofit.
Photo courtesy of Sudipto Sarkar.