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Noble: Going beyond generosity; why business charity is not enough

Corporate awards are an important part of modern business life. The awardee is established as a pillar of the community and is looked upon with favour.

Most often they increase brand awareness and the likelihood of new customers and contracts. But awards also inform the world of what is valued by the society or community conferring the honour.

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In August, the US Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of business corporations as taking care of all stakeholders in the community and not just their shareholders. This is an abandonment of the doctrine of economist Milton Friedman who in 1970, proclaimed that the sole purpose of business was to make a profit for their shareholders.

This profit-centred view informed how business was done for many years. Times have changed, and now it is fashionable to speak about ‘corporate social responsibility’, often defined as gift-giving, as a way of burnishing our reputation.

Douglas Wilson, Trinidad Express general manager, recently remarked at the annual dinner for the Children’s Fund: “The best use of your extra wealth is to give it back to society.”

It would be interesting to understand better the definition of ‘extra wealth’. Some of us have expanding needs as our ability to generate income expands. Do we really need a Porsche Cayenne to drive on our roads?

How much of such decisions are driven by ego rather than rational needs? Are we not, therefore, changing the limits of what is ‘extra wealth’ when we keep making decisions designed to boost our ego?

But there is a recognition that business must be seen to be taking care of some in our communities. We, however, clothe our deeds of charity under the label of philanthropy. These two are closely related but are not the same.

Photo: Volunteers in Manila (by tear cordez from Pexels)

The notion of philanthropy has its roots in Andrew Carnegie’s The Gospel of Wealth, an 1889 essay that noted: ‘wealthy individuals have a special obligation to give benefactions from which the masses … will derive lasting advantages and thus dignify their own lives.’

Philanthropy, unlike charity, is a reciprocal relationship between the two parties designed to help beneficiaries change the trajectory of their lives and to have a better life experience.

Adoption of Friedman’s doctrine drove our world, and our country, to become a more unequal place. We gave up communal living and created separate lives. We looked after ourselves and rejected the idea that we had any responsibility for anyone else. We viewed the less fortunate as lazy.

A Harvard Business Review article gives an insight into such thinking: “when we succeed, we’re likely to conclude that our talents and our current model or strategy are the reason …” When we believe like this, it is difficult for us to love people, which is what philanthropy literally means. Narcissistic people love only one person, themselves.

Economic inequality, created by this narcissistic perspective, affects daily lives, provides a lesser experience of basic human rights such as proper education and good healthcare, and reduces social and economic mobility. It is in this context that Rev. Martin Luther King pointed out: “philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice that make philanthropy necessary.”

Chuck Feeney, arguably the largest anonymous corporate donor, asked the question: “Are we more concerned about others’ liberation or our legacy?” He may well have been speaking about those who pursue naming rights to draw attention to their contribution beyond their lifetimes. We can include those who wiggle out of paying taxes, thereby weakening our nation’s capacity to care for the less advantaged.

Photo by Kat Yukawa on Unsplash

The compelling moral purpose, rather than the recognition, should drive our giving. Our very human nature ought to move us to help those who are in need. It ought not to be that the biggest beneficiary is your own name and reputation.

Why should someone seek unlimited press coverage for donating an infinitesimal portion of his wealth? Skirting social responsibility to maximise profit cannot be atoned for by a few magnanimous gestures.

Charity, based on this mindset, runs out of money. The gift is always whimsical and not aimed to achieve a strategic goal. It will never change the dynamic of poverty. It will never help those who are helped become persons who can, in turn, help others.

Should our business leaders, in their assessment of who are exemplars, turn a blind eye to pain caused? Are power and minor distributions of one’s wealth more important? Should we ignore the sustained pain of one community (the one in which the business success is rooted, but which suffers environmental damage due to our business practices or risk to their children’s lives due to an absence of pavements to protect them from huge trucks) because of the gifts bestowed elsewhere?

Our philanthropists should create opportunities, not just leave a cheque. They should enable the cultivation of the best talents and ideas, which will help our nation to become more competitive. They should do their part to help break down the system of social injustice. They could achieve more if they were to cease the self-preening.

About Noble Philip

Noble Philip
Noble Philip, a retired business executive, is trying to interpret Jesus’ relationships with the poor and rich among us. A Seeker, not a Saint.

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  1. Earl Best

    One wonders precisely what was the recent event that triggered this noble Noble reflection. I propose to go and look in the Express to see what I find there but it sounds to me like Noble wants some unnamed people to go and have a long, hard look in the mirror.