Meet Charles Maisel. As controversial as he is kind-hearted, this is one man whose viewpoint shakes up conventional charity thinking.
At first glance, Charles’s career looks like another great story of bright-student-done-good. Charles’ first endeavor after graduating was to set up the award-winning charity Men on the Side of the Road. The organization provides men (and now women), who would otherwise be standing on the side of the road touting for work, with regular, suitable job opportunities across South Africa. A storming success, Men on the Side of the Road provides 200,000 jobs per year, making a sizeable impact on the millions who were unemployed.
For Charles, however, becoming coined “the guy who does unemployment” was boring. Insightful about what works for him and, more importantly, what doesn’t, he confesses that he hates managing people, can’t sit through meetings, and doesn’t want to be the “the face” of an organization. Charles’s job criteria are simple. He explains: “I want to come up with new ideas, have fun, and not work very much.” His work proves that you can live this boyish dream and still make money.
Before moving on from Men on the Side of the Road, Charles did something that makes most people’s moral radar run into overdrive. He requested a monthly royalty payment for having founded the organization. This “founders fee,” as he calls it, still hits his bank account every month, along with kick-backs from the plethora of other organizations his company, Innovation Shack, has established since then.
Using an innovative technique he’s perfected over the last 10 years, Charles has a list of over 3,000 ideas for enterprises, most of which have a social slant. He puts one idea into action every month. With each idea, he follows the same pattern. He tends to get involved in the start-up phase of his ideas, offering guidance, contacts, and often his own capital. Then he agrees on his cut, usually just with a handshake, and takes a back seat. He never takes shares, only monthly payments, as he wants to keep his level of ownership as low as possible.
As we tried to figure out what makes Charles tick, it became clear that he’s more of an innovation addict than a social soldier. Whether it’s got a social side or not, he admits that he lives off the excitement he instills in others. A self-confessed loner, Charles doesn’t crave acceptance and isn’t fazed when his ideas fail to come to fruition.
As advocates for bringing business thinking into the third sector, we were surprised at how unfathomable this concept was to us. Searching for common ground, we felt a mixture of unease and awe when Charles said to us “I have no problem taking the money, no scruples at all!” We inched down off our high horse when he told us that many of his projects have been for-profit entities, but we spent the rest of the interview flip-flopping between viewpoints—is this morally heinous or total genius?