Daniel Helfman wants to do good. Not carrying-groceries-for-an-elderly-neighbor good, but the kind of good that creates jobs for the long-term unemployed, builds affordable housing in high-poverty areas, and extends health care to those without it. He calls his mission “social change through free enterprise.”
The 37-year-old Brooklyn-based Texan is the founder of Goods That Give (www.goodsthatgive.com), a new mail-order outlet for environmentally sound, socially conscious businesses to market their wares. The 14 companies that currently make up GTG include the well-known American Apparel Company; Brooklyn Woods, an organization that teaches woodworking and cabinetmaking skills to low-income adults and then sells their creations; Greyston Bakery, a Yonkers concession that since 1982 has trained hundreds of former prisoners and the erratically employed to be master bakers; and babypolitico, a New York City firm that sells children’s clothing with political messages, such as “It’s nature AND nurture…so please nurture nature”; “Please ensure I’m insured…support universal healthcare”; and “Don’t blame my mom…she voted Democrat.”
Inspired by Ben and Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farm, The Body Shop, and Tom’s of Maine, Helfman—the do-gooder—is also the founder of Social Venture Consulting (SVC), a four-year-old company that has helped more than two dozen nonprofit and progressive for-profit groups around the U.S. achieve financial stability and reach their development goals. One, The Enterprising Kitchen, is a Chicago-based organization that trains women—most of them formerly homeless domestic violence survivors—to make cold-processed glycerin soaps. SVC worked with Kitchen staff to restructure its debt, devise and implement a new marketing plan, and reduce inventory. Within six months of its association with SVC, The Enterprising Kitchen raised $500,000 and increased its revenue by 15 percent.
The soft-spoken Helfman doesn’t trumpet such accomplishments. Instead, he speaks about his sense of responsibility and the family background that taught him the importance of giving back. “My grandfather was a lawyer whose firm did a lot of pro bono work, and my dad has had a men’s clothing store in Dallas for more than 40 years. Both taught me that business can be a force for change. For more than 25 years my father has helped the Scottish Rite Hospital, a health center that provides free care to kids with terminal illnesses. His store’s customers donated 10,000 books to the hospital library.”
An aunt’s example has also inspired Helfman’s commitment. “My aunt Barbara owns a company that makes planters with a built-in irrigation system. A while back it started to become very expensive to manufacture them domestically, and everyone told her to take production overseas. She refused and found a nonprofit with a manufacturing arm that employs the developmentally disabled. She outsourced from a traditional for-profit to a nonprofit and helped create socially conscious jobs in Texas,” he boasts.
The phrase “socially conscious” liberally peppers Helfman’s speech; as it does, his passion becomes contagious. He tells of an internship, then a job, at Greyston Bakery. “They are a $5-million-a-year business with a foundation that funds health care and low-income housing for people living with HIV and AIDS,” he says. “They run a child-care center for about 100 kids who live in these apartments. They also sponsor the Phillipsburg Performing Arts Center, the Carnegie Hall of Yonkers. They are a community based organization successfully working to change reality.”
The desire to change reality undergirds both Social Venture Consulting and Goods That Give. In fact, to participate in GTG, businesses must meet at least two of the following criteria: creating new jobs for the long-term unemployed; working with organizations helping to rebuild communities and strengthen families; supporting sustainable agriculture and donating a percentage of their profits to local improvement efforts. Lastly, they must use earth-friendly production methods. “We want to create a fully socially conscious economy,” says Helfman. Within three years he expects GTG to donate $100,000—five percent of anticipated post-tax profits—to social change activities.
In addition to providing an outlet for progressive businesses to sell their products, Helfman says he hopes that GTG will also become a place for folk artists to showcase and market their work. One of GTG’s member groups, the 10-year-old Immaculate Baking Company of Flat Rock, North Carolina, provides financial support for the Folk Artist’s Foundation. “Some of the artists they work with are poverty stricken,” says Helfman. “One of them, Leonard Jones, works in Georgia and is so poor he doesn’t even have a phone. Each of his paintings is an original done on tin panels that used to cover his roof. If we can sell 100 pieces of his stuff through Goods That Give, he’ll get royalties and his name will get out.” Jones’s paintings cost $50 a piece; the artist receives $25 from each sale.
GTG is always on the lookout for new artisans and craftspeople. “If we can find a brass maker in Kansas or Oregon, for example, who makes candleholders that can be coupled with the candles we sell, we’ll do two things. We’ll build up his or her resources and get that person known outside of the community in which he or she works. We want to build up our catalog, and these artists are going to be the backbone of what we do.”
Although the five-month-old company is still evolving, Helfman is unwaveringly optimistic about its future. Nonetheless, he admits that GTG is unlikely to ever have mass appeal. “We’re selling high-end stuff for people with disposable incomes,” he admits. “It’s a fact. But if these people are going to buy something anyway, why not buy something that gives back and is well-crafted by an artisan?”
Indeed. As socially conscious spending captures growing consumer interest, green and sweatshop-free businesses are proliferating, manufacturing everything from environmentally sound flooring (EcoTimber) to organic cotton clothing (Esperanza Threads). As a result, some forces within corporate America are encouraging socially responsible business development and are working to cultivate new markets for products that fill this niche. “Socially conscious behavior brings tangible rewards,” writes one Business Week Online reporter. “The payoff can come in the form of higher productivity, because employees want to stick around. It could show up in new business, because you’ve helped build a stronger and thus more economically vital community. Or it could mean customers switching from one of your rivals simply because they admire your efforts.”
Daniel Helfman is giving everything he’s got. Eager to do his part to repair the world, he is looking to market capitalism for redemption. While die-hard Marxists are sure to bristle at GTG’s presumptions, most others will be easily seduced by the company’s array of enticing offerings.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader