What would happen if the hustle of the entrepreneurial spirit were brought to the philanthropic world? What if every non-profit organization had a for-profit business to sustain it?

What would happen if the passionate and the called gave no thought to whether they have the financial support needed to continue their work?

What if there was a truly sustainable model to create a lasting impact in the neediest communities?

Gowalla development executive Andy Ellwood '04 is a big believer in the power of corporate philanthropy.
Gowalla development executive Andy Ellwood ’04 is a big believer in the power of corporate philanthropy.

These are the questions Andy Ellwood ’04 wants to explore. As the business development executive at Gowalla, the location-based social experience service, Ellwood wants greater collaboration between nonprofits and corporate entities, creating sustainable wealth that supports both.

This idea was born when he was working as a sales executive for a private jet company. In his interactions with high net-worth individuals, he frequently heard them lament, though they wanted to support good causes, the ROI was low—that the money they gave was not utilized as efficiently.

This conundrum intrigued him. Generally the brightest minds in business don’t work for non-profits. What if he could help bridge that gap, injecting his entrepreneurial know-how into social causes?

His favorite example of this happened a few months ago in August 2010. It was one of his first big projects at Gowalla, a union between his company, AT&T and TOMS Shoes. Perhaps you’ve heard of TOMS. Slipper-like canvas shoes, they are replacing flip-flops as the footwear of choice on college campuses. When you buy a pair, a pair is given away to children in need. TOMS Shoes was approaching the milestone of its millionth pair of donated shoes. AT&T, a major supporter of TOMS, wanted to capitalize on the celebration.

The promotion worked like this: Gowalla users could “check in” at any place where shoes or cell phones were sold. Doing so would enter them in drawings for TOMS, AT&T smartphones and netbooks, and the grand prize, a trip for two to Argentina to participate in the “shoe drop” when the millionth pair of TOMS would be given away. Gowalla users could get a feel for the history of TOMS Shoes by taking a “trip”, checking in at sites significant to the company (such as the first store where they were sold) and collecting “pins”, like stamps on a virtual passport.

The promotion raised sales for AT&T and TOMS, and awareness for their global philanthropic work. Thousands of kids in Misiones, Argentina, received new, high quality shoes—perhaps for the very first time in their lives. By every metric, this was successful.

“We need more companies that understand the opportunity for impact that they have, not just in one time “check it off the list’ charitable contributions, but with a true understanding and integration into the very soul (or in this case sole) of their company’s mission,” Ellwood wrote in a blog post about the event.

“You’ve got to look honestly at your work and see where there’s an opportunity to improve, to make the business better.”

While not every partnership Ellwood forges between Gowalla and other companies (such as CNN, the NBA, NASA and Whole Foods) has a philanthropic spin, Ellwood’s personal tagline is “connecting good people with great opportunities.” This includes giving a “philanthropreneur” flavor to every project possible. “The more I talk about it, the more energized I get. What if we led with entrepreneurs and followed with clean water, education, and healthcare?” This model would turn donations into true investments, so that a donor could give one time and make a difference perpetually as the business continues to grow.

Ellwood will keep developing this idea as he grows his own entrepreneurial toolkit by building Gowalla, which launched in 2009. Since then, the company has grown to 27 employees (he was the eighth hire) and 600,000 users. In his experience there are three defining characteristics of an entrepreneur: persistence, hustle, and self-coaching. He would know. He started his first business at the age of 12—a business that he sold and that is still in operation today.

“The most successful entrepreneurs I know stick to it no matter what,” he says. That means no expectation of vacations or working from 9-to-5. Work and life are fully integrated.

It can be lonely if you’re the sole employee. There are no coworkers to celebrate successes or commiserate setbacks. No one to give feedback on your performance. Here self-coaching is invaluable.

“You’ve got to look honestly at your work and see where there’s an opportunity to improve, to make the business better.”

What happens when you put those concepts to work philanthropically? You improve your business—and you improve the world.

See more at andyellwood.com, or go with him on Gowalla at gowalla.com/andyellwood.