After over three years of writing these weekly columns, I thought it would be useful to tell the story of the group that appears in the byline of each of these pieces. It all started in 2006 when a group of people united around a common mission: to use business to fight world poverty.
Craig Wilson was a retired lawyer and banker who wasn’t ready to retire from changing the world. Len Janeski was a retired small business specialist from the U.S. Small Business Administration who believed in using business to create world progress. Tom Harms was the vice president of human resources administration at Staples and the founder of a successful Massachusetts food pantry. Frances Laskey worked as an executive with Berkeley Policy Associates, an employee-owned consulting firm. Many of us were introduced through our affiliation with the Center on Business and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We came from diverse backgrounds and experiences but shared a common belief that business had the power to create progress and fight poverty.
We started with a very simple hands-on program: helping employers assist low-income employees with their taxes. We recognized that many low-income employees did not have the resources or experience to navigate tax codes and maximize their tax returns, and that it would cost employers relatively little to provide tax preparation services for their employees. We developed a system in which companies could help their low-income employees prepare and file tax returns and take advantage of tax credits like the earned-income tax credit.
This service had multiple benefits. First, we helped employees receive refunds averaging $1,600 per person. Second, we were able to counsel these employees to use part of their refunds to start a savings account. Third, free tax preparation helped employees to feel their employers cared about them, which resulted in higher loyalty and lower turnover. Staples invested an average of $75 per employee to run this program and saw a resulting 32 percent lower annual turnover rate for participating employees, which saved Staples over $480,000 in annual turnover cost. Since 2008, we have helped over 5,000 individuals receive nearly $8 million in tax refunds.
From our starting point in tax preparation, we expanded to offer online financial literacy courses. We have since helped over 1 million employees from over 850 different employers improve their financial knowledge by up to 70 percent, which results in smarter attitudes and behavior, including managing debt and avoiding late fees.
Eight years later, we remain true to our original mission to help underserved populations, but our main focus has evolved from providing hands-on training and support to creating awareness about models for how to help. Our current focus is spreading information about the progress through business that is happening throughout the world, and supporting the businesses creating progress. We developed an online periodical, progressdaily.com, that provides a daily snapshot of current innovations supporting global progress. Click the “act now” button in our articles and you will find opportunities to learn more and contribute support to models you believe in. Additionally, we support the growth of multiple businesses in the U.S. and India that aim to achieve a positive social impact. We also host conferences that bring together thought leaders and social entrepreneurs from around the world to network and share ideas.
Progress Through Business was founded with the intent to help others, but it has also been an amazing experience for us. As Tom Harms says, “I continue to learn and grow with Progress and that is amazing considering I have now been retired for nine years.” We plan to continue progressing together for many years to come.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Katy Sperry, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.