The difference between non-profits and for-profit companies is “nothing but a tax status”, according to one of the billionaires minted during the first internet boom.
Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, and his wife Jean are using their estimated $1.4bn fortune to promote a revolution in philanthropy and to encourage the development of companies who have a social mission as well as a goal of making money.
Their approach is emblematic of the new thinking among technologists about how to marry for-profit and non-profit organisations in the service of tackling the world’s greatest challenges — a theme taken up in dramatic public fashion by Facebook’s 31-year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg earlier this month.
Mr Zuckerberg promised to dedicate his $45bn Facebook fortune to “advance human potential and promote equality for all children”, and said he would do it through a limited liability company, not a traditional foundation, so that he could invest in for-profit companies and lobby for political change.
Mr Case said that the line between philanthropy and for-profit business was breaking down, thanks to a new generation of mission-driven businesses created by millennials.
“Fifty years ago people would come to DC if they wanted to change the world because they believed the government might be a way to have that impact and there’s still some who do that. Twenty-five years ago people came because they wanted to start a non-profit. They believed that Teach For America or some other organisation could have that kind of impact,” he said.
“Now a lot of people want to start companies. They realise that start-ups can change the world . . . The reality is all three of those sectors are needed and they need to work together in tandem to solve some of the more difficult challenges and seize some of the great opportunities.”
Mr Case’s comments come in an interview for the Financial Times Ambitious Wealth series that was recorded before Mr Zuckerberg’s announcement.
In the same interview, Jean Case, who is the chief executive of the Case Foundation, talks about the couple’s work to promote “impact investing”, funding companies that plan to make both a financial return and a measurable social impact.
Asked whether starting a for-profit company can be equated to the philanthropic impulse that send people to work for charities, Ms Case says the common theme is “a passion for mission”.