Doing Good is Worth Doing Well

| Christina Hachikian, Executive Director, Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation

In May 2017, the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation celebrated five years at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and announced a $20 million gift. The Rustandy Center, formerly called the Social Enterprise Initiative, is the destination for people committed to helping solve complex social and environmental problems.

The following is an excerpt from a speech given by executive director Christina Hachikian, Booth adjunct associate professor of strategy.  

Only one human disease — smallpox — has ever been eradicated through deliberate intervention.  Polio, for instance, remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria more than 64 years after Jonas Salk invented the Polio vaccine. That’s because disease eradication takes more than a vaccine. Leadership is required to take a solution and implement it on the ground.  

Questions of leadership in the social sector are among the most important that the Rustandy Center will strive to address through research.

But can research really have that kind of impact in the face of real, on-the-ground challenges?

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, Quaker Oats gave 20,780 pounds of surplus cereal bars to Feeding America. Each of its food banks wanted the bars. But to get them, they had to compete.  Bidding opened at 10 a.m. By noon, Kansas City, had won the bars.

Booth faculty members Canice Prendergast, Harry Davis, Donald Eisenstein and Robert Hamada devised Feeding America’s “choice system,” which lets food banks bid for products.

The local food banks lose more than they win, but this method of online non-cash bidding is far better than the old system. Previously, Feeding America assigned donations by rotating down a list. That system would sometimes leave food rotting in Rhode Island; cause chicken to go from Alaska to Alabama; or flood Florida with even more orange juice.

Booth faculty devised a system whereby “shares” were allocated to food banks daily, based on the poverty level and population of the community. To ensure small food banks could sometimes outbid much larger ones, smaller ones would get more shares.

Here’s how the head of a Michigan food bank described it: “Deciding which products to bid on isn’t easy, but we know our service area better than anyone else. For better or worse, the decision making is now precisely where it needs to be.”

In short, the model worked. But of equal importance are the questions it raises. Can this model be applied to other resources? What other lessons can we learn? What kind of leadership and buy-in was needed for wide-spread adoption of this model?

The mission of the Rustandy Center is to marry practical knowledge with academic insights into how the sector functions. And we seek answers the Booth way — by questioning, testing ideas, and seeking proof.

Armed with these insights, we strive to help people increase their odds of solving seemingly intractable problems.

Because doing good — from eradicating polio to distributing food to the hungry — is worth doing well.

Christina Hachikian is the executive director of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She leads the center’s global work as the hub for people solving complex social and environmental problems.  In particular, she is responsible for strategy and direction, as well as resource development and partnerships.  She is also an adjunct associate professor at Booth, and teaches courses on scaling social innovation and on social enterprise strategy, as well as serving as a coach for the school’s Social New Venture Challenge.

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