First up, I should probably state that I'm a big fan of Richard Branson. Much like Steve Jobs, I think he's the businessman all businessmen want to be like. Perhaps more so for his adventurism, exploration and philanthropy.
So, while I think this book was well meaning, I feel it was rather misdirected. A meandering account of various social entrepreneurship initiatives (except when it it's doing the opposite, which I found strange), Branson basically is pointing to a total shakeup of how we do philanthropy. And while I'm a big (huge! after working in three high profile not for profits) believer that the NFP sector needs to become much more accountable and innovate a lot more, this blanket belief that all it takes to fix the world's problems is applying business and social entrepreneurship principles as well as unlimited enthusiasm to every problem is the same sort of thinking that got us into trouble with the large orgs and cookie-cutter strategy organizations in the digital space.
Sure, there are a heap of things social entrepreneurism can solve and there are points where the market is a better mechanism for fixing a problem than aid, government intervention and the like, but to pretend it's the Holy Grail to fix some deep, intractable and ultimately thorny issues about development, disease and global inequality is simplistic and smacks a little too much of Kony 2012.
And while I believe, ultimately, many firms are going to have to move to a model where profit motivations are not their sole prescription for being (and welcome the advent of social charter organizations), I really disagree with Branson suddenly pegging some organizations as suddenly "doing good."
Sure… there's the argument that doing a a little something better is better than dong nothing, or worse, even doing harm but I think that's the same trap that we see with greenwashing… "Oh, sure we spilt all that oil, but look at the nice solar powered lights we gave away to Africa at cost!" Fundamentally, if your product does more harm than good, I don't care how much good you do, you are fundamentally in a business that needs to just plain stop or change fundamentally. This goes form cigarettes to coal mining and I can't see how their doing some charitable social enterprise suddenly changes the nature of what they do. Richard points to a number of companies like these, and some borderline ones such as large oil and gas companies, which I think is the precise opposite of screwing business as usual. Business as usual for them is greenwashing and making amends for their sins in minor ways and pointing at it while destroying value and livelihoods with the other hand. Not buying it.
And I think there are value destroying companies that aren't necessarily totally harmful that are also in this boat. Richard pointed to CocaCola's buyout of Innocent juices of the UK, a great company making an amazing, healthy product that tastes great, was ethical and make people feel good. Linking up with Coke, was for me, a disaster for them. You can't sleep in bed with the elephant without getting crushed when it rolls over as it's said.
Anyhow, the overwhelming problems with the book though, still don't mean that Branson doesn't have a great number of examples of places where there is some great stuff going on, but unfortunately, I feel like he's too busy humble bragging about Necker Island, his game reserve or name dropping a bit like a boorish party guest that it detracts from the overall theme of the book.
Which saddens me. I do think Branson has some great things to say even where he's missed the mark broadly here, I just wish he'd been a bit more selective, and bit more considered and a bit more measured about who he said it about.