Features: The Good Generation

Tired of cynicism? Selfishness? Schadenfreude? Hop on the bus, Philly. The cry of the moment is “Save the world!”

The Lord isn’t the only one who works in mysterious ways. So do rock stars.

One day a couple of years ago, Sister Mary Scullion — earthy yet spiritual co-founder of Philly’s celebrated Project H.O.M.E., and herself something of a rock star in social services circles — was concluding a public meeting about homelessness in North Philly when she was approached by a man who introduced himself as “O.B.” He was impressed with what he heard about Project H.O.M.E., which strives to help the poor and homeless become independent, and he wondered if Sister Mary might be able to tell him more. Sister Mary is not the type to say no — either to people in need or to people who might be able to help people in need — and so a few days later she took this … O.B. … on a tour of what her outfit has been up to for the past 20 years — its community center and café (staffed by the homeless) on Fairmount Avenue, its street outreach projects, its recently completed Honickman Learning Center. When they finished, O.B. laid his cards on the table.

“Sister,” he said, “I actually represent Jon Bon Jovi, and … ”

Now, Sister Mary is a woman of great faith, but she is no rube. As she puts it, “We get all types up here.” And so her reaction was not what you might imagine from a nun.

“Yeah, right,” she muttered.

No, O.B. insisted, he really was with Bon Jovi, and a few days later he proved it by bringing JBJ himself up to North Philly for a little of the Sister Mary treatment. The rocker — who along with local developer Craig Spencer had recently become owner of the Philadelphia Soul, the Arena Football League team — was impressed by what he saw at Project H.O.M.E., and he had a simple question for the nun: How can we help?

Thus was born one of the more unlikely philanthropic partnerships in recent memory, a pairing so unexpected that it sounds like a pitch for a bad sitcom — über-rich entertainer teams up with vow-of-poverty-taking penguin. (Working title? Livin’ on a Prayer, of course.) But in North Philly, you’ll see what the Philadelphia Soul Foundation and Sister Mary hath wrought: The Bon Jovi Homes, 15 rehabbed houses, many now filled with formerly homeless women.

“It was almost like … well, nobody knew how to react,” Sister Mary says of that first day she took Bon Jovi around the neighborhood. “It was almost like it was too good to be true.”

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.

Such companies already exist — Tom’s of Maine and Ben & Jerry’s come to mind — but Gilbert and Houlahan think there’s a market for more, which is why they’ve created a Berwyn-based outfit called B Lab. Their new firm has codified standards for what it means to be a socially responsible company — then allows those that measure up to use the “B Corporation” logo, akin to a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Just as important, B Lab helps companies rewrite their corporate documents so they’re no longer beholden strictly to shareholders (and therefore to maximizing profits). Instead, they answer to their “stakeholders” — a group that includes consumers, employees, the environment and the community at large. It’s a change that frees companies from looking only at the bottom line when making decisions and allows them to factor in the overall goodness or badness of what they’re doing.

The B Lab guys won’t go near the R-word, but beneath what they’re trying to do is a revolutionary notion: that companies shouldn’t be forced to choose between doing well and doing good, and that the world would be better off if we expected corporations to do both.

B Lab formally launched this past summer, and since then, about three dozen companies have become official “B Corporations.” “It’s a tough decision for a company,” Houlahan says, noting that it often means a deep examination of what a company’s real mission is. He and Gilbert are undeterred: Two years from now, they expect socially responsible B Corporations to represent a $4 billion market.

WHAT FASCINATING ABOUT B Lab — and so much of the Good that’s now taking place, from the quest to help Africa to the Green Movement — is the scope and ambition of it. This is not writing a check for a new hospital wing. It’s about big and permanent social change.

So here’s a question: Is what we’re seeing here a movement — or merely fashion, a fad that will go away? When I ask Sister Mary how she explains what’s going on, good-wise, she talks — with enormous gratitude — about the impact of high-profile people like Jon Bon Jovi. “I think now more than ever, the leadership of celebrities — and prominent philanthropists — has shown that it can make a huge difference,” she says. She’s absolutely right — although you can’t help wondering what might happen if at some point the famous decide to turn their attention back to themselves.

Then again, maybe that’s just a cynical thought, one that ignores the self-sustaining power of Good itself, the high you get from fixing something that’s broken, righting something that’s wrong, helping someone who needs a hand.

When you’re hungry, after all, it feels very, very good to eat.