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Prime Time for Enterprising Ideas

By Tom Watson on May 23, 2007No Comment

Prime Time for Enterprising Ideas
By Susan Carey Dempsey

Here at onPhilanthropy, we’ve been watching closely as the separate worlds of nonprofit and for profit have crossed each other’s borders. The boundaries have become increasingly blurred,  as businesses commit profits to social causes, nonprofits apply business models to solving problems, and innovative collaborations spur fresh approaches to deeply entrenched human ills.

So we noted with interest that NOW On PBS-TV is about to launch a new series, called Enterprising Ideas, which will focus on “stories that highlight people using their business acumen to make the world a better place,”  according to David Brancaccio, the program’s host.What’s notable about this series is that it is planned to be aired over 2 years, focusing on 18-20 different initiatives. The significant commitment that makes it possible comes from the Skoll Foundation, through the PBS Foundation Social Entrepreneurship Fund.

Social entrepreneurship, of course, is a term that has graduated from buzzword to trend to a phenomenon that is being carefully studied, analyzed and critiqued. Skoll, a major advocate of social entrepreneurship, hosted an international forum this spring at the University of Oxford’s Said Business School, where an onsite blog from onPhilanthropy’s Tom Watson included Jeff Skoll’s observations about the trend, which he called “a movement from institutions to individuals.” Individuals, he suggested, can move faster and take more chances than hidebound foundations. “Wherever you find humanity at its worst in the world,” Skoll said, “you’ll find a social entrepreneur working for change.”

The first story, to be aired this Friday, May 25, will take viewers to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. The germ of an idea that developed into this project began when Scott Hillstrom, a corporate lawyer from Minnesota, found himself at a McDonald’s, contemplating the efficiency of the franchise model which ensures, among other things, that a French fry in Minnesota will taste just the same as one in Brooklyn. He began to wonder about the suitability of the franchise model for public health, “a vehicle for commerce,” Brancaccio said, “turned toward the public good.” The model he developed for Kenya applies the franchise model to fighting certain diseases, such as malaria and certain types of diarrhea, which are responsible for serious illness and high mortality in developing countries.

Under the model, a franchise is awarded to set up a clinic/shop, where generic health products such as acetaminophen or mouthwash can be sold. The rules specify that a licensed person, often a nurse or community health worker, must be there at all times, and that the products must be sold at the specified price. They can’t be “jacked up,” said Brancaccio.

Despite the deep poverty of the region, residents are asked to pay a nominal sum for the products. Where that has not proved feasible, a non-profit component of the project has been created, a charitable piece dedicated to fundraising to cover the co-pays.

Building on the entrepreneurial concept, a woman franchisee profiled in the first show has set up classes in treating malaria nets with a pesticide. As her potential customers become educated, they will seek out products to continue treating the nets. Where will they find the pesticide? In her shop, of course. The economic ripple effect grows, as she hires a local resident to clean her home, so that she can tend to the shop 24-7.

On a wider scale, the impact of the franchise program is that it provides an incentive for nurses and other trained health workers to stay in the country. So far, there are 65 stores; an estimated 1600 – 2000 would be needed to meet community health care needs in Kenya.

The subjects of the show vary widely, but share common themes.  “They could be sustainable, but not necessarily,” said Brancaccio.  “They could be for profit or not for profit. The bottom line is, that it has to have a social mission, to seek to make the world a better place.”

Subsequent shows will look at a Boston soul food restaurant that employs local poor youth and delivers healthy meals to the elderly, the launch of a worker co-op in the Bronx that collects and resells construction refuse, and a microcredit endeavor in Mexico that has given small business loans to more than 400,000 poor Latin Americans.

“I wanted to focus on places that may be grim and have problems, but not leave people felling inert or cynical. We can provide positive examples, to say, it may not be perfect, but here’s an idea that could make a difference.” Brancaccio asserts that the show will not be like the “good news” segments inserted into TV news shows to offset grim stories, but will report aggressively on whether, in fact, all of these innovative projects will prove to be beneficial.
“Enterprising Ideas” is accompanied by a Web site and outreach materials designed to empower the public to become involved or launch their own projects that use business strategies for humanitarian purposes.  Visitors to the website will find exclusive profiles of social innovators, blog reporting on the emerging field of social enterprise and Project Changemaker – a contest where visitors nominate a social entrepreneur who is just beginning a project and follow the winner’s progress. The show will also have podcasts available. “Younger viewers, in their 20s and 30s, tend to carry us around,” Brancaccio added.

Brancaccio expects 2.5 million viewers for the first show, on Friday of Memorial Day weekend. “It’s not Lost or America’s Next Model,” he said, “but we do beat Larry King and Chris Matthews.”

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