Italian Philanthropy Forum

Interview to Lucia Dal Negro, DE-LAB Founder

What is De-Lab?

De lab s a design and consulting laboratory specializing in supporting the profit sector in paths that move in the sector of the purpose economy. We do this through three design approaches: inclusive business, which has international cooperation as its background, social innovation which has CSR and integrated sustainability as its background, and ethical communication which has as its background communication understood as the restitution and dissemination of the socio-environmental commitment of a company.

What made you decide to become a benefit corporation even if this model does not have immediate benefits, but, instead, there are responsibilities and constraints?

For me it has never been a matter of incentives or a return of image, because I have always believed in this virtuous way of doing business. For De-LAB it has always been a theme of identity and with the arrival of the benefit companies, we have found the right box to enter our career choices.

I always asked myself “ Why of all the beauty that happens in the Third Sector is not brought to the practical and operational attention of companies, if not to ask for funding?” Over the years, fortunately, things have changed and new models have spread where companies are not only considered a fund, and then when I saw the news of the birth of the benefit corporations, I thought: "We finally made it!".

Each of us has our own role in changing the world, how are you and your institution contributing to this goal? Tell us about your approach to create a positive social impact.

Ours is a methodical support, for the identification of objectives, for the realization of projects, together with the private sector. Our support is knowing how to create and carry on these alliances to generate social impact of which we are the protagonists together with our customers. What we try to create is not a simple client-consultant relationship, but we want to build a path so that the company can then advance on this alone: “being part of the same team” is something that generates impact since the beginning of the project. SDGs 17 speaks precisely about this: "partnerships for development", which in our case represent valuable alliances to generate impact. 

Can you tell us how the inclusive business model works?

Inclusive business is a design approach, so it means being able to design products and services that respond to the needs of people living in low-income communities with profit driven models. We do this for others and, from 2019, also for us with the Kokono™project, an inclusive business initiative born after two research fields in Uganda and which offers a product that is introduced into the local market, to be accessible locally and financially sustainable.

Being able to build these models that are commercially valid and simultaneously have the intrinsic goal of generating social impact is important both for companies, from a strategic point of view, and for people… in our case, Kokono ™ will protect fragile babies.

How can a company invest in a social impact project? Can philanthropy and inclusive business find common ground?

We need to understand what we mean by "investing".

If we want to think about inclusive business, we are talking about an economic investment for a project that develops - thanks to partnerships with the beneficiaries - new products or services that generate impact on site, from which an economic return must also be generated: there is an economic-financial plan to be respected, precisely to give financial sustainability to the initiative and make sure it will not depend on the availability of external funds. 

If we talk about philanthropy where the company makes a pro-bono donation on a social impact project, there is an investment in terms of resources, time, energy but the goal is not to generate an economic return - for the donor - from that donation.

Either way it can have a social impact, but the two models have different goals. On the one hand we have inclusive business, which aims to build commercially sustainable models with various value characteristics, whose objective, therefore, besides social, is economic. On the other hand we have philanthropy, which is a solid and strategic collaboration between profit and non-profit but which was not born with the aim of having a profit return from that economic support.

They are two tracks that go in the same direction but do not cross.

Can any company undertake an inclusive business project?

Of course, as long as they produce services or products that are used in developing or less developed countries.Here there is the link with the needs of the recipients, which must always be considered. So, either the companies are native to inclusive business, or they can study a path - which they can define with De-LAB - to open a work front that follows this model. The literature on inclusive business tells of companies whose core business is native inclusive business and others that activate inclusive business models only for some of their products or services suitable for low-income markets and communities.

How do you measure your results and how do you define if an initiative has been effective?

As a benefit corporation we have a legal obligation to produce an impact assessment. We describe our impacts and the results of our choices in our impact report, referring to the SDGs, the principles of the UN Global Compact and following the GRI approach. Next year, since we have become B Corp, we would like to start using BIA as an impact assessment method, crossing it with the SDGs.

How important is the relationship with the territory in your model? How is this relationship carried out? Did it change during the pandemic?

The relationship with the territory is important for us, but it is not fundamental, our customers tend to be all over Italy: we have carried out projects in Puglia, Emilia Romagna, Veneto, Lombardy.

When I am abroad, however, the territorial concept emerges because I find myself talking about the Italian reality and therefore about our national territory, a perspective that I carry on with pleasure and pride, because there are many Italian experiences that must also be valued abroad.

Our relationship with the territory becomes important in the places where we launch inclusive business or social innovation projects, that is, where the fallout and impact of our works and our designs take place.

One thing you have learned in the last year of work?

I learned the importance of being able to reinvent some strategies. I have found that we are much more flexible and adaptive than I thought.

What is the initiative that you have created and you are most proud of?

For sure Kokono™! Kokono™is a project and a product, conceived by De-LAB to address the growing need for maternal and infant health and safety in South-Saharian Africa.It is the first cradle designed to protect babies, to generate local employment and make mothers more autonomous and independent.

Although it has been very affected by the pandemic, which has completely stopped our operations in Uganda for a few months, it has managed to adapt to the changed conditions and we can finally say that we are in the phase of starting production on site. Being able to contribute to the reduction of infant mortality and concretely approach the theme of Multidimensional Poverty (2017) makes us very proud!

An object or a symbol that you could not give up or that is essential to do your job? To do my job the network is essential! Network intended not only as a web connection (without the internet we would be doomed) but also as a connection between people… Even without empathy we would have no future ☺ 

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