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Building Philanthropy into the Business Model

A women’s apparel company is empowering its customers to reduce world hunger, one blouse at a time.

Kara Mendelsohn | cooper & ella

In 2014, The World Bank committed $8.3 billion to make food more available and affordable in impoverished communities around the world.

This effort and others by NGOs and large multinationals are extremely generous. But the enormity and complexity of the problem mean they are not enough.

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Rising food prices and trade restrictions make world hunger an even more complicated issue.

According to the United Nations, one in eight people across the globe goes hungry every day; that number includes an estimated one in six children under the age of five who is underweight. Complicating the issue are rising food prices and trade restrictions that inhibit the movement of food across borders, from areas of plenty to areas of need.

The severity of the world’s hunger problem cries out for a collective effort from all of us – not just the largest and most obvious sources, but also from individuals and small businesses. Including companies like mine: cooper & ella, a women’s apparel company, named after my son and daughter.

One of the founding principles of our small business is to empower children in need. In 2014, in only our second year, we made a long-term commitment to the HOPE Foundation in India because of its cradle-to-career approach to empowering children’s success.

In some areas, parents send their children to school for more than education. They send their children to school for healthy meals because they cannot consistently provide them at home.

Making an Impact

When we asked the HOPE Foundation how we could best support these children, they emphatically replied by consistently funding their food. Our initial commitment was to provide a minimum of 100,000 hot meals in 2015 to the more than 400 children at the HOPE Foundation School Tannery Road in Bangalore.

Of course, this commitment barely makes a dent in the hunger problem. But even it would have been beyond our means if we had not believed the customers of cooper & ella shared our passion. So we expanded the empowerment idea by building the cost of one hot meal at the school into every garment we sell. That means every time someone purchases a cooper & ella blouse, a hot meal goes to a child in need.

It was a strategy that runs counter to traditional philanthropy, which is often based on a company’s year-end profits. Instead, we incorporated a philanthropic funding program, which we call empower, into our business model. It’s an approach similar to programs used by many B Corporations.

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The severity of the world’s hunger problem cries out for a collective effort from all of us – not just the largest and most obvious sources.

We believe this model empowers our employees and our customers, along with the foundation and the families those purchases support. What’s more, our customers and employees seem to like the way we’re making them part of the solution.

Expanding Reach

The next step is to make their support go farther. For that we need to expand our business, which we are doing through the power of global e-commerce. Our logistics partner, UPS, is helping make the process of servicing our customers around the world surprisingly simple.

Now, in addition to the many retail locations where our women’s apparel is sold, we are empowering customers in every corner of the globe to support a humanitarian program.

It is both humbling and satisfying to view our efforts in the context of global hunger.

The World Bank has set a goal of bringing the last one billion people out of poverty by 2030; it says we’re making progress. The Bank’s calculation for 1990 found 1.92 billion people living at the “absolute poverty” level, which allows for only enough money for a family of three to buy two bowls of rice soup per person plus a loaf of bread. By 2000, the total had fallen to 1.63 billion. In 2010 it was 1.13 billion; the estimate for 2011, released last October, found 1.01 billion.

This means about 25 million people a year were escaping the worst levels of poverty during the 1990s; about 60 million per year in the 2000s, and perhaps 100 million per year in the early 2010s.

Such ambitious goals are daunting for a small business owner like myself. But I’m confident empowerment of all stakeholders will be part of the solution.

We found a way to do that through our planned philanthropic giving. As we grow, our ability to make a difference will increase automatically without affecting how we do business. In turn, that will allow us to do more. That’s a good feeling because more will need to be done. goldbrown2

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Kara Mendelsohn is Founder and Designer of international women’s apparel company, cooper & ella.

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Reprinted with permission of Longitudes, the UPS blog devoted to the trends shaping the global economy.

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