The first time I went to Nike’s headquarters I expected to be blown away.  Their lake, their shrines to the world’s greatest athletes and their advance products for human performance all generate an energy that slams you in the chest.  What I didn’t expect was to be impressed by their social mission.  But I was.  As I often say, “Nobody’s perfect, but some leaders are doing inspiring things.”  Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO, is one of those leaders.  He repeats a mantra that elevates everyone’s game: “Our business isn’t making stuff or selling stuff.  It’s helping people reach their true potential.”

Nike is using the power of their brand by using sport as a tool for social innovation and inclusion.  One such example is their N7 Fund.  N7 makes Nike products available to Native and Aboriginal health programs to purchase at reduced prices.  The N7 Fund also provides grants to fund sports and physical fitness programs to these communities.  Some programs that have benefited from fund proceeds include the Native American Basketball Invitational Foundation, Notah Begay III Foundation Soccer Program, and the Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run.  Other such programs include the Homeless World Cup and the campaign to give more than nine million children better access to education, sport and technology.

While Nike’s efforts in the sports arena are to be applauded, that’s not all Nike is up to.  Did you also know The Nike Foundation focuses on adolescent girls in the developing world as powerful agents of change in their communities, capable of unleashing a ripple effect that will change the course of poverty? Here are just a few highlights:

  • Over the last three years, the Nike Foundation invested $41.9 million against this strategy. Over the six-year life of the Nike Foundation, it has committed more than $100 million to benefit adolescent girls.
  • Nike Foundation offers microloans to older girls to start small businesses—growing tomatoes, selling fabric, raising chickens—while still attending school.
  • Nike Foundation offers safe spaces among urban slums where girls can connect with other girls, learn self-protection and other basic life skills.

“We believe that sport has the power to unleash human potential.  A physically active lifestyle promotes more than exercise.  Involvement in sports and physical activity leads to greater self-confidence, enabling youth to be a force for positive change in their communities.”  That’s what Hannah Jones, Nike’s senior executive charged with integrating social responsibility and sustainability into Nike’s strategy, is pursuing.  Jones heads a team of nearly 150 fired-up people who show up everyday to figure out how Nike can create a “better world.”

It seems to be working.

Nike wins big.  And they keep winning even in the face of economic strife.  Their first quarter reports for fiscal 2011 are the following:

  • Revenue $5.2 billion, up 8 percent versus prior year
  • Diluted earnings per share up 10 percent from prior year to $1.14
  • Worldwide futures orders up 10 percent
  • Inventories down 3 percent versus prior year

We shouldn’t be surprised by Nike’s success.  Our research is showing that both employees and consumers are energized by meaning.  Nike is definitely up to something bigger than sneakers.