09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
A lifelong do-gooder, Laura Scher volunteers at a community garden and with her daughter's Girl Scout troop. She makes her kids—Alison, 9, and Jonathan, 1—give old toys to charity before they get new ones. And when she threw a cooking party for Alison's birthday last year, guests made extra to take to a homeless shelter.
But as CEO of a $140 million company, Scher, 41, makes her biggest contribution with her firm's bottom line. San Francisco's Working Assets markets credit cards and long-distance service, donating a chunk of dough—1 percent of phone bills and 10 cents per card transaction—to progressive nonprofits such as Rainforest Action Network and Amnesty International. By the end of this year, the privately held venture she started in 1985 will have given away a total of $25 million. "We're selling the concept," Scher says, "that everyday activities like talking on the phone can lead to acts of generosity."
More than 100,000 credit-card users and 350,000 telephone customers, including Ralph Nader and Gloria Steinem, have hopped on board—and not just because bills include coupons for free pints from Ben & Jerry's. "My MasterCard spending alone may rescue a Third World country," jokes comic Paula Poundstone. "It's the lazy man's activism."
Indeed, if customers don't have time to write to Congress about the pressing issues noted in monthly statements, they can check a box on their bill and Working Assets will send a letter for them. Customers also vote on where the donated money goes. Nobel Peace Prize winner Doctors Without Borders topped last year's list of 49 recipients (it got $175,847); this year's 60 designates include Sweatshop Watch and the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Says former Maryland congressman Michael Barnes, president of the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, a three-time recipient: "Laura is making a huge difference."
The Clifton, N.J., native has the background for the task. Her mother, Frances, 68, is a retired economics professor; her late father, Alan, ran a company that made environmentally friendly chemicals. At 11, Laura joined her parents on a cleanup of the Passaic River, "which was so oily you could light fires on it," she says. "Growing up in New Jersey, you became very environmentally aware."
After earning an economics degree from Yale—where she met husband Ian Altman, 41, who owns a benefits consulting firm—and an MBA from Harvard, Scher was unsure of her next step. "I was looking for something that had more value to society than selling another brand of laundry detergent," she says. Then she heard that a mutual fund firm called Working Assets that invested in socially responsible companies wanted to start a subsidiary to sell other products. "I told them I didn't care if I answered phones or was chief bottle washer," she savs.
Instead, she became CEO, introducing no-annual-fee Visas in 1985 (MasterCards soon followed) and phone service in 1988. (The mutual-fund business split off in 1988 and later renamed itself Citizens Funds.) Despite the donations, Scher keeps prices competitive: The interest rate. on its credit cards was recently as low as 12.9 percent, vs. 15.9 percent for the average card; phone service, resold from long-distance giants, goes for 7 cents a minute.
In 1997, Working Assets began offering Internet access, and this June it launched an activism-info Web site, Working For Change.com. Next on Scher's agenda: cell-phone service, due this fall. But nothing excites her more than the grant ceremony, where this year she plans to dole out $5 million. "Every year feels better than the year before," says Scher. "I think, 'This is why I come to work every day.' "
Michelle Bowers in San Francisco