There are companies that make a mark on the world, and then there are those that change the world.

As an example of the former, think Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX), which is busy trying to put mocha frappuccinos within arm's reach of nearly everyone on earth. That's certainly not a small goal, and the company has been rather successful in its history: It currently dispenses beverages and other tasty treats in more than 7,500 retail locations in North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific Rim. Not bad.

But has it really revolutionized the world? In many ways, no. If Starbucks were to disappear today, we may miss it, but we'd get our caffeine fixes at Dunkin' Donuts or at mom-and-pop coffee bars. We drank coffee before Starbucks, and we'll likely drink it afterward.

Now think of companies such as Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), and Ford (NYSE:F). Microsoft and Apple (with some help from other companies) have revolutionized personal computing, ushering in new ways of doing things. eBay, along with its fixed-price subsidiary, has quickly grown to be the first place many people look to for certain kinds of items or more power over the price they pay for things. Ford Motor Company made automobiles affordable for the masses, and fine-tuned the assembly line along the way.

Social entrepreneurs
Just as there are business visionaries who build businesses that change the world, there are also lots of world-changing social entrepreneurs out there. I'm in the middle of a wonderful book about social entrepreneurs: How to Change the World by David Bornstein. (You may recall that Bornstein wrote another terrific tome, on the miraculous Grameen Bank.)

But back to the book. It details what is essentially an unnoticed-by-many profession: that of the social entrepreneur, an "idea champion" who is obsessed with applying an idea on a grand scale, making a world of difference. Bornstein quotes management guru Peter Drucker, who said, "Whenever anything is being accomplished, it is being done. by a monomaniac with a mission."

He also describes the birth of U.S.-based Ashoka, an organization dedicated to scouring the world to find social entrepreneurs and aiding them in their work with financial and professional support. Ashoka founder Bill Drayton said, "We should be investing in [social entrepreneurs] now -- when they are shaky and lonely and a little help means the world."

The word Drayton used -- "investing" -- is very apt, because just as you hope and expect to see a return on your money when you invest in a company, social entrepreneurs also offer the promise of a payout.

Florence Nightingale, of all people
One example of a social entrepreneur detailed in Bornstein's book might surprise you: Florence Nightingale. I confess to having just imagined her as a dowdy, do-goody nurse, bustling from one sickbed to the next, comforting the sick and dying. Noble, yes. But fascinating? I (wrongly) assumed not.

Nightingale actually spent much of her time on administrative, fundraising, and, more importantly, lobbying matters. Since childhood, she had been obsessed with nursing, and through voracious reading and studying (even studying mathematics and statistics), she came to realize that a key to recovery was hygiene.

She didn't just make a major difference in the massive field of health care; instead, she turned it on its head. Once she got various authorities to heed her, she was able to cut mortality rates. well, just read this excerpt: "In February 1855 the death rate in the British army hospitals in Scutari was 43%; by May it had dropped to 2%." That's a huge change -- in just three months. There's more: "Through sanitary reforms, between 1863 and 1873, the annual mortality rate of soldiers in India was reduced by 75%."

This is a key thing about social entrepreneurs: scale. Epic scale. They tend to have ideas that can be applied all over, making the net return on investment exponential.

The book describes many other social entrepreneurs, such as India's Jeroo Billimoria, who launched a toll-free hotline for street children in Bombay in 1996. By 2002, it had spread to 42 cities in India and was paving the way in another 12. It had answered nearly 3 million phone calls, providing a wide range of services to those in desperate need. Billimoria is now helping spread the concept to other nations.

In Brazil, Fabio Rosa managed to buck the system, which consisted of set-in-their-ways electric companies and the government, by bringing affordable electricity to rural Brazilians, the majority of whom didn't have it. (So they didn't have any lights, refrigeration, computers,. you get the idea.) Rosa's systems brought not only electricity but also more effective farming techniques, so production and income tended to increase as well.

Fool anthropies
The idea of supporting those who are making the world a better place is not new to most of us. And we here at the Fool have long supported it, particularly through our annual "Foolanthropy" charity drives. Our drive for 2003 just ended, but that doesn't mean you aren't still welcome to read about the five charities we've been supporting for several years now. I think you'll be amazed by some, if not all, of them -- especially by the compelling returns on investment they offer. And if you're so inclined, by all means consider sending them a farthing or two. There's really no cutoff date for donations.

Here's a snippet on each:

  • America's Second Harvest feeds 23 million Americans annually through food banks and food-rescue programs. It also operates Community Kitchens, where underemployed people learn food-service job skills and prepare meals for the hungry.

  • Ashoka finds practical visionaries with world-changing ideas and offers them a modest living stipend for three years, freeing them to work full-time to implement their innovative solutions. Ashoka's social entrepreneurs have, for example, revolutionized India's elementary school curriculum and preserved endangered grassland in South Africa.

  • Grameen Foundation USA supports microfinance programs that lend money to the poorest of the poor in the United States and developing countries, so they can start small businesses and lift themselves out of poverty with dignity. Even small donations can transform lives, and the money is re-lent over and over again.

  • Heifer International gives economic survival to poor families worldwide by providing livestock and training, enabling them to improve their health, earn money, educate their children and preserve their environment. Recipients give their animals' first female offspring to other needy people, continuing a chain of sharing, community building, and self-reliance from Appalachia to Zambia.

  • Lifewater International trains teams worldwide to drill and maintain water wells for themselves, donating materials and the volunteered time of North American professionals. More than 2 billion people don't have adequate access to safe drinking water and good sanitation.

Fool on!

Selena Maranjian's mission in life is to render the incomprehensible comprehensible. (Or is it the other way around?) She owns shares of Microsoft and eBay. For more about Selena, view her bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens . The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.