A university guidance counselor once asked Jonathan Liebert what he wanted to do with his life. He mustered all the respect he could manage and answered, “I don’t know.” He wasn’t trying to be impudent. He added, “It’s not because I haven’t done the research. I don’t know because what I want to do hasn’t been invented yet. I don’t know exactly what it looks like or what it is, but I’ll know it when I see it.”
That desire to harness the intangible led him to major in psychology, which he calls “the business of people,” and eventually to a job with a local behavioral healthcare company. “I had two roles,” he says. “I was getting people with severe and persistent mental illness housing, and I was also in charge of the vocational department. My job was to find work for people who had really tough diagnoses.” His solution was for the center to find ways to employ them itself, overall starting 12 different social impact businesses—even before there was a commonly understood name for them.
About 15 years in, a leadership change prompted him to move on, and he earned a role at the Better Business Bureau (BBB), an organization built on trust and ethics, which are deeply ingrained in Jonathan’s approach to his work. Around the same time, in response to high demand, he launched the Colorado (now National) Institute for Social Impact (NI4SI).
Social Impact: The BBB works with both for-profit businesses and nonprofit entities, but before Jonathan took the helm, there was no way to accommodate any sort of middle ground. Over the past few years, the BBB has been piloting a program called BBB4Good, a new trust mark filling that gap and ensuring that companies do the good they say they do, and it’s set to be adopted nationally in April 2022. The NI4SI focuses on education and measuring impact, including a certification program via which professionals are able to workshop a business model and receive guidance and ideas on how best to move forward and avoid the pitfalls that come with both starting a new company and spotlighting social impact.
Larger lessons: “Now more than ever,” Jonathan says, “you vote with your wallet. There are a lot of really good companies that are doing some pretty incredible things, and there are some companies that are doing some not so good things. But if you aren’t checking, if you’re not paying attention, then your dollar is saying you agree with whatever they’re doing. Do your homework and buy from companies that you believe in. Younger generations are hardwired for this stuff. They don’t know what it’s called. They don’t know what the language is. But this is absolutely how they think.”
He adds, “For whatever reason, here in the United States 300 years ago, we took the head and the body and split them apart. We put the nonprofits over here. We put for-profit over here. Now what you’re seeing is we’re bringing these two things that never should have been separated back together. But know that, one, this is really, really hard. Two, it works, and when it works, it works really well. Running a business is hard. Running a nonprofit is probably harder. And you’re combining these two things. It’s not easy, but if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”