August 30, 2017

Advice for entrepreneurs trying to build a socially conscious company

Charity Charge founder and CEO on how to stay focused on your mission

Charity Charge founder and CEO Stephen Garten, center. Photo courtesy of Charity Charge

As the founder and CEO of a social enterprise, I have attempted to keep my focus narrow. Since the earliest iterations of Charity Charge, the goal was to put something pure and simple out there that makes it easy for people to do good every day. For over a year now, we have offered consumers the Charity Charge World Mastercard. This altruistic credit card strives to redirect billions of unused or expired reward points to organizations that stand to benefit the most and that promise to do the most good with them. As our public benefit corporation has taken root and grown, I have shifted some of my focus to sharing our story, especially details of our business model and the innovations that we hope will change the charitable world for those giving and receiving.

When launching Charity Charge, the concept was met with skepticism and pushback from people who thought we should offer our cardholders the option to keep their cash-back or donate it, advice given on the principle that appealing to the masses is key to successful brands. But we knew we couldn’t please everyone, a notion was reinforced when I met with Laura and Al Ries of Ries & Ries. The famous father-daughter duo and successful authors and branding experts had very positive feedback about Charity Charge at its earliest stage. They put an end to my internal struggle regarding our brand when they shared with me one of their core principles of branding. Their advice was essentially to narrow our focus in order to build the brand. They told me what I wanted to hear: that I could continue building a brand that would stand for positive change.

I knew that I wanted to put our mission at the forefront of our company. If all went as planned, consumers would adopt our credit card, and as more nonprofits reaped the 1 percent cash-back donations from cardholders, profits would follow for Charity Charge. Harvard Business Services explains that public benefit corporations strive to generate profits for their shareholders while dually helping “make the world a better place.”

Given the success of social enterprises like TOMS and Warby Parker, the choice we made to direct all rewards to nonprofits seems so obvious. These industry giants do not thrive on a choice to do good, but rather an automatic “good” that follows every purchase. Plainly, TOMS retailers don’t give buyers the chance to redeem a second pair of shoes for themselves- an almost laughable concept when you think about the impact the company has had on people in need. TOMS’ infrastructure, like that of Warby Parker, makes the giving or do-good aspect of the company central to their mission, easy for consumers to utilize, and highly beneficial to those who are gifted the reward from the consumer’s purchase.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking to George Weiner on his podcast called Whole Whale. During our conversation I was organically prompted to explain to George that we are not about trying to straddle the fence. We don’t offer a card that kind of gives back and kind of puts something in your pocket. The goal was, and still is, to offer a totally altruistic credit card.

I now understand that social enterprises only stand to be diluted when they aim for positive change while grasping at the idea that some personal gain must always be up for grabs. I firmly believe and endorse the advice from Ries & Ries that to build a brand, you must narrow the focus of your company. In other words, do not stray from your core value proposition. At Charity Charge, we strive to maximize profits for nonprofits so it makes sense to donate all cash-back rewards to the charities that our cardholders choose.

Social enterprises have the potential to generate a remarkable level of positive change that will increase incrementally when the mission of the brand is narrow and prioritized by the company. I am thrilled to be a part of this new generation of consumers and business owners who are driven by the desire to make an impact with everyday choices. As social entrepreneurship thrives, the beneficiaries of social enterprise will grow in number and will hopefully be more empowered by the rewards that flow from do-good brands.

Stephen Garten

Charity Charge

Stephen Garten is the founder and CEO of Charity Charge.