One-for-One Evolved: The Next Thing in Social Entrepreneurship

Posted by Matthew Lisle on

How can we make the number of people drinking clean water grow sustainably? There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but one particular approach to business-driven philanthropy has gotten a lot of attention in the past decade. Colloquially, it’s “one-for-one.” So what is one-for-one, and would it work for water?

The “one-for-one” model, created by TOMS shoes, simply means that for every item, like a water filter or a pair of shoes, bought in the developed world would finance one of the same item donated in the developing world. It uses the buying power of the world’s wealthier to create an impact for the world’s poorer.

The one-for-one model won several awards for its innovative approach to driving social impact with business, and it’s truly innovative component was how it connected the consumer buying at full price to the impact that they, as an individual, were creating in someone else’s life. I mean it doesn’t get any more tangible - by buying this thing, a deserving but under-resourced person gets one too? Awesome!

Not awesome. The real impact of the model was called into question soon after it started. The most basic argument against it is that if a company shows up with a truck-load of products, what happens to the local businessman who makes those products? The local entrepreneur’s business stalls because the market has been flooded with free products. So, by buying the product, whoever makes it in the place receiving the donation gets put out of business. Not as uplifting, huh?

BUT, people like the founder of TOMS and of other businesses that followed suit (Warby Parker and Soapbox Soaps to name a couple) iterated on the model to create the type of impact they were after all along. After all, social entrepreneurs are incentivized by more than just the bottom line, which is the reason why they have been pivoting their business models to drive local business instead of just donating products.

Stop right there.

That’s key. Growing through local business, according to experts, is indeed the way to achieve sustainable growth. TOMS has begun working with local manufacturers; Warby Parker uses part of its donation to train people how to give eye exams; and Soapbox Soaps finances hygiene education in addition to donating physical soap. Pretty good ideas, right?

So what about water? Would a similar model work?

Water is fundamentally different. With water, you cannot as easily divide countries into the “haves” and the “have-nots” because, well, look at the lead crisis in the US. Not only that, the type of water solution - a community system, a personal water filter, an industrial facility - varies widely not just from country to country, but from town to town and city to city. I’ll take it even further, if the wrong system is implemented, the situation can get worse rather than better.

To make a tangible and long-term impact with personal water filters, then, working with local business in the region of impact - whether that’s in the U.S. or in Kenya, for example - is the most important component of sustainability. Is someone getting one for free? No (except maybe in an emergency) , and that’s the most important part. Think about it this way, if someone asked if they could give you a product for free, the natural reaction is, “why are you giving it away - is something wrong with it?” Instead, other innovative ways, like selling via a payment plan with a small upfront cost, are devised to make the product affordable.

That’s the way a business can truly create impact that can scale: everyone needs water, so let’s create a model focused on the interdependence of businesses and consumers to make products that improve lives. Everwaters is doing just that.

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