I started working for a technology services company in 1994. The part of the company that I led focused on serving nonprofi t organizations. When the company could no longer “subsidize” this philanthropic division, I was left with a tough choice: fi nd another job and let the philanthropic division be shut down, or fi gure out how to make a go of it as an entrepreneur. So, in February 2001, I led the division through a friendly spin-off and we launched as Community IT Innovators.
I decided to make this jump out of a sense of duty to our nonprofi t customers. I believed that the organizations we were serving would be hard-pressed to fi nd an alternative IT provider who could do what we do for them at an affordable rate.
My company is unique in many respects, and this comes from the social mission that has been the focus since our founding. One expression of these ideals is our commitment to serving charitable nonprofits. To make this possible, we implemented a sliding fee scale that makes our rates affordable for organizations of any size. Jokingly, we refer to ourselves as the “not-for-much-profi t” company, as our margins have always been lower than they could be.
An upside of the sliding fee scale is that it enables us to continue serving smaller organizations that often provide the greatest return in non-fi nancial ways, particularly the sense of fulfi llment that the staff gets from serving them. Connecting people with organizations they believe in is a key part of our value proposition to prospective employees, and in that way, “doing good” comes full circle as a competitive advantage. A downside is that our profi tability is low (but positive), so we have to be somewhat frugal in how we invest our limited profi ts.
The sliding fee scale is just one way in which we’ve established ourselves as a beacon of social responsibility. Though we were helping our clients save money, we knew we could use our experience to help make more of a long-lasting impact. In 2004, we emphasized environmental responsibility by searching for ways to help clients “green” their IT. We now recommend green Web site and server hosts, and we measure the carbon footprints of IT solutions. It costs us a little more to research these topics and include them as part of our service offerings, but the market has grown to support it, and in some cases, demand it. With this new approach to business, I’ve had to alter my way of thinking.
For our project to be sustainable long term, I had to fi nd a more workable balance. That entailed letting go of responsibilities and of having a say in some things. It meant letting others make mistakes that I don’t feel I would have made. Finally, I had to accept that we’d earn less money for the sake of philanthropy. In the end, I’ve learned that some wealth can’t be quantified with dollar signs, and that being successful also means running a company that is doing some good in the world.