Eyeglasses are a powerful, and simple, product. I learned this first hand while working on a vision campaign in Guatemala. In 2008, I was supporting a vision entrepreneur fit an elderly woman for her first pair of glasses. During the exam, the elderly woman started crying, and I cringed, believing that we had made her feel uncomfortable.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. She told us that she worked as a weaver and was the sole income provider for her family. Sadly a few years ago, her eyesight became so weak that she had to stop weaving. The pair of glasses she bought from us was going to allow her to resume her craft.
For many, a cheap pair of glasses can be the difference between providing an income for their family — or not. Fitting a child with eyeglasses can change their trajectory in school. Over 700 million people need, but don’t own, eyeglasses.
Although many non-profits strive to provide optical services, most struggle to solve this challenge at scale. To solve this problem, Jordan Kassalow founded VisionSpring, believing that for an organization to be sustainable, it needed to have a business model associated with it.
VisionSpring provides access to optical care to the world’s poorest customers, known as the “bottom of the pyramid” (BoP). Since its inception in 2001, VisionSpring has become one of the most-cited social enterprises, reaching over 2.6 million customers in 30 countries. VisionSpring is a double-bottom line social enterprise, meaning that it provides a positive social impact in addition to financial returns. The organization sells glasses to the rural poor, and uses a cross subsidy model to fund its operations.
You may wonder, why sell glasses when it’s possible to donate them? Donating is a temporary solution, not a lasting one. By training men and women to sell the glasses, VisionSpring provides an opportunity to earn a living and also introduces products into the market that customers want to wear.
Contrary to common belief, high-quality glasses only cost a few dollars to make. Meaning, the great challenge is not the cost of manufacturing, but rather in the cost of distributing the glasses. Over the last 15 years, VisionSpring has tested multiple operating models to see which would have the greatest impact on their mission, while decreasing the subsidy needed to achieve scale.
Operating Model 1.0: The Vision Entrepreneur Model (2001-2008)
The first model VisionSpring tested prepared vision entrepreneurs (VEs) to host screening campaigns in rural villages. After a 3-day training, each VE was given a backpack, called “business-in-a-bag” that contained a starting inventory of glasses and supplies.
Although gross margins on the glasses exceeded 50%, ultimately the cost of distribution and management of the VEs was not sustainable. VEs needed to sell 18-20 pairs a month to break-even, but many were selling on average 10 pairs per month. Additionally, 70% of VEs turned over within 18 months of joining, which increased recruitment and training expenses. 
To achieve a sustainable business and reach more customers, VisionSpring needed a new model.
Operating Model 2.0: Global Partnerships (2008-present)
In the next iteration, VisionSpring partnered with organizations that already had a presence in the target country. The team signed multiple partners to distribute eyeglasses, including Vision for a Nation (Rwanda), Community Enterprise Solutions (Guatemala), and BRAC (Bangladesh).
Partnerships have great benefits, including access to a pre-existing workforce. BRAC, for example, helps VisionSpring reach over 100k target customers annually through its footprint.
One of the challenges with the partner model is that VisionSpring is not able to closely control training, marketing, and product selection. To this day, the partner model remains one of VisionSpring’s core channels. Nevertheless, recognizing the limitations, VisionSpring looked to develop other models to continue its growth.
Operating Model 3.0 and Beyond
VisionSpring is a highly-cited organization for the social enterprise community, because it continues to innovate and improve its operating model to reach more people.  It has been testing a “hub and spoke” model in India, where retail shops (the “hubs”) provide a permanent access point to prescription glasses, and those hubs fund vision campaigns in rural towns (the “spokes”). VisionSpring is also testing a “Vision Access Projects” model, where the team partners with India’s leading companies to bring vision screening and eyeglasses to schools, slum and rural communities. 
VisionSpring has proven that a strong company can use a for-profit mindset make its social mission more sustainable. The leadership team recently announced a growth plan that will distribute 10 million glasses over the next 10 years – and I have no doubt that they will continue to refine their operating models to exceed that goal.
 If you’d like to support the VisionSpring team, each $3 dollars you donate will provide someone with sight-restoring glasses
 Stanford Graduate School of Business: VisionSpring (Case Study, 2014)
 Stanford Social Innovation Review: VisionSpring Aims To Provide Eyewear to Millions (2014)
 Discussion with VisionSpring President, Ella Gudwin