Branson: How Virgin Unite connects philanthropy with entrepreneurialism

With Virgin Unite, we figured out how doing good in an entrepreneurial way could be good for the bottom line.

We must change the way we do business. I keep coming across this message, whether I’m visiting a bustling global city, a small town in rural England, a South African township or a G8 climate conference. Until now, business—or capitalism, really—has been a means of making money for directors and shareholders, and rarely about doing good. It’s time for us to change that.

Finding a way to create a new business or adapt an existing one so that it is more aligned with your values and your company’s is an individual process. And a good, socially aware business doesn’t have to be big to make an impact. There are many small-scale businesses around the world—from organic vineyards in Australia to llama knitwear co-operatives in Ecuador—that are changing for the better how business is done.

But as Virgin grew through the years, so did our ideas about how to treat employees well, and how to take environmental impact into account, and by 2004, I had come to realize that we at the Virgin Group had a chance to tackle the challenges our society faces in a new, entrepreneurial way. It was time that we explored how boundaries between work and higher purpose could merge into one—how doing good could actually be good for business.

But I didn’t want just to throw money at social and environmental problems; I wanted to offer targeted help and entrepreneurial thinking where it would be most effective. I wanted to find a way to help drive dramatic change, making the world a better place and helping people.

I decided to establish a foundation so that everyone working within the Virgin Group could pull together, but at that point I had no real idea of what shape it would take. I discussed it with managers across the group, looking for ideas. Then I met Jean Oelwang, an executive with a long track record in the mobile phone industry and in working with non-profits of all kinds. Jean wrote a plan and sent it to me. I was immediately excited.

Jean and I had long conversations about how we could turn typical corporate philosophy upside down, moving away from solely handing out money to becoming a true partner for frontline organizations and leveraging absolutely everything the company possessed in order to drive progress. We wanted everyone in the Virgin family to feel part of the community of change. We also knew we wanted to do what Virgin does best and go out and find the gaps—issues that no one else would touch.

Jean met with all of the Virgin companies over the next six months and spent a lot of time talking to charities. We didn’t tell them how we thought our efforts ought to be shaped, but we asked them what they wanted to see and what they wanted from us. We then pulled the plan together and launched Virgin Unite in 2004 at our annual company summer party at my home outside Oxford in the U.K.

I explained to the group that we wanted to do something radically different. Virgin Unite would not be just another charity, but would become an integral part of Virgin Group philosophy and at the core of everything we did. Over the course of some weeks, we received good feedback from the thousands of people who work for Virgin companies and the hundreds of frontline organizations we met with in order to truly launch Unite. They wanted it to be an engine that connects people and entrepreneurial ideas to make change happen—to provide a means for the groups to connect with each other and then to link up with people across the planet.

Through Virgin Unite and our various non-profit efforts—everything from the Carbon War Room to the Branson Centres of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg and Jamaica—we have joined and fostered a new wave of emerging entrepreneurs, along with leaders and workers at existing businesses, who are making a living and at the same time doing more to help people and the planet. This refl ects a vibrant and marked transformation from the way business used to be done, when fi nancial profit was the only driving force. Today, people aren’t afraid to say, “Screw business as usual!”—and show that they mean it. Are you?