I’LL BE THE FIRST TO ADMIT this is a seemingly odd time to be proclaiming that good is on the rise. Philly kids are getting shot as often as kids in Iraq, the world seems poised on the brink of Armageddon, simple civility has slipped out the back door, a national magazine has dubbed us the butt-ugliest people in the country …
And yet, look at what’s happening — not only with matinee-idol rock stars, but with regular people — and there’s little doubt that Giving Back has suddenly achieved a certain cachet, that Doing Good, improbably, is in the midst of a cultural moment. Not only is philanthropy going through the roof, but volunteerism — a movement that got a boost a few years ago when Colin Powell hosted a national conference in Philadelphia — is at an all-time high. And this is to say nothing of the high-profile acts of good that have become cultural touchstones: Bono, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett giving away jillions and raising awareness about Africa. Bill Clinton’s book Giving topping the best-seller list. Local rich guys like Gerry Lenfest and Joe Neubauer writing charitable checks with lots (and lots and lots and lots … ) of zeros in them.
Is good suddenly the new black?
In some ways, this bonanza of benevolence is a predictable by-product of our current age of affluence. Make ridiculous amounts of money, as the hedge-fund class and others have, and you eventually realize there isn’t much to do with your dough other than give it away. But it’s not just a gilded sense of guilt that’s driving this — there also seems to be a deeper hunger among many of us, after several decades of pleasing only ourselves, to be connected to something bigger. Indeed, if this really is a new cultural moment, it’s an intriguing blend of two previous ones: the Kumbaya idealism of the ’60s merging with the all-about-the-Benjamins ambition of the ’80s, ’90s and early aughts. This was once a generation that dreamed of saving the world. Now, suddenly, it has the bank account — and the savvy — to perhaps pull that off.
IT’S WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON, and I’m having lunch in Berwyn with Jay Coen Gilbert, 40, and Bart Houlahan, 39, two of the guys behind AND 1, the Paoli-based sneaker company that saw enormous success in the late ’90s. How much success? Enough that market leaders Nike and Reebok took dead aim at the $250 million company.
Gilbert and Houlahan undoubtedly saw a nice payday when AND 1 was sold in 2005, and so it would be tough to blame them if they had decided to spend the rest of their days hunkered down in a couple of Main Line mansions, occasionally flipping fifties to the peasants. Instead, they’ve chosen to do something different — and harder. As Houlahan puts it, “We’re trying to build an entirely new segment of the economy.”
That segment falls somewhere between the for-profit corporations that account for almost all of our GNP, but whose sole focus is the bottom line, and the nonprofit organizations that are devoted to the public good but which make up only a fraction of our economy. Gilbert and Houlahan see a third way: a new class of companies — they call them “B corporations” — that are deliberately hardwired to both make money and be socially responsible: to protect the environment, promote social justice, be good to their employees, be generous members of their communities.