I am debating former Ford Foundation director Michael Edwards this evening about his provocative book Small Change: Why Business Won't Save the World. His book is an important, first-hand perspective on the current state of philanthropy. I have never had the privilege of giving someone else's money away in the form of a grant, for example. But for the past several years I have worked with foundations, companies, and governments to raise funding for the various projects I have directed. So my perspective comes from the other side of the equation.
Mike asks, can business methods help save the world? More specifically, can market-based approaches to solving social problems do more good than harm, and what are the possible implications of such an approach? Mike's main point is that a focus on profits or income generation is incompatible with real social change since a focus on profit, price, and metrics tends to drive energy toward short-term thinking rather than deeper, longer-term causes of social change. The business approaches fail to support things like love, community, and compassion that have intrinsic, aesthetic value, which is unquantifiable but nonetheless important especially for long-term, transformational philanthropy, as Andrew Carnegie called it.
Mike's view had to be said, and I applaud him for having the courage to say it. His argument was the inevitable backlash after a decade of exuberance about businessy approaches to philanthropy. In my career observing foreign policy trends, I noticed a pattern in the common wisdom, and it is usually aided by the character of media as entertainment. A new trend can start out as great, then it is bad, but eventually the common wisdom settles somewhere in between. Like everything else, it's complicated. The truth is dialectical.
We see Mike's backlash view already percolating into foundation strategies. I was just in Washington a few weeks ago meeting with the head of grant-making at a well known institution. He admitted that referring to funding as "seed money," developing business plans for nonprofits to make money, and demanding strict methods for quantifying success (an outcomes mantra) have become unfashionable. Demanding metrics can lead to metrics inflation, the pursuit of the wrong short-term goals, and a waste of a nonprofit's time in the burden of reporting. This donor said we shouldn't have to work ourselves into contortions just to show metrics, but some kind of notion of success does need to be defined. A fair question remains in the grant-making world: How will we know if your project succeeds? How do you define success? And as a consultant friend of mine recently said: that question is a business question. And as Mike admits in his book, nonprofits depend on good business acumen for the management of financial assets.
My main point here is that the relationship between business and civil society is synthetic and symbiotic. Mike's venerable effort has definitely created some much needed debate. But without business, there would be no civil society and vice versa. Ethical business emerged out of a positive interaction between business and civil society. And without wealth generation, entrepreneurship, and innovation, there would be no support for civil society. And I agree with Mike that to create a better world, business needs to become more like civil society. One challenge is how can you do that while remaining globally competitive. Fortunately, the US and UK have been blessed with a relatively robust civil society and giving culture relative to the rest of the world.
The subtitle of Mike's book ("Why Business Won't Save the World") is misleading, and I don't blame him for that. But to take it literally, I would counter: The world cannot be saved--whether it be in addressing climate change, relieving hunger, or getting financial resources to the poor--without involving business. The way to get businesses to act more like civil society will be through business instruments like pricing, incentives, and training, as well as through civil society instruments like transparency, citizen pressure, and reporting, and through government action like regulation, rule of law, and taxes.
As Mike puts it (on pages 60-61), "...the best results in raising economic growth rates while simultaneously reducing poverty and inequality come when markets are subordinated to the public interest as expressed through government and civil society." We saw this in the Asian tigers in the 1960s as well as in the US in the 1800s as described by Pietra Rivoli in her classic The Travels of a T-shirt in the Global Economy. The way I would put it is that this civil society-industry-government relationship is needed to civilize the behavior and effects of business otherwise it will run loose like a wild animal. Animal spirits must be guided by ethics. Without these civilizing effects, you actually get a breakdown in the market as trust, fairness, pricing, transparency, and accountability, which make the market function, are at stake. Corruption is one example of market breakdown; and it leads to poor quality, dangerous products, a squandering of resources, and often violence and thuggery.
Toward fostering this positive interaction between business and civil society, we launched the Workshops for Ethics in Business at Carnegie Council about four years ago. The concept behind our series is that business and civil society can support one another, learn from one another, and act as agents for positive change for one another. Businesses need external champions to push for positive change in corporations.
But getting to Mike's central argument. I would also point out that a business approach can be appropriate in some facets of philanthropy.
First, it can reduce corruption or nepotism between a funder and a grantee and a funder and another funder. At least in principle with a more "open market" approach, giving can be fairer and more democratic. Grants can go to the hardest working or most effective rather than "some guy I know."
Second, business approaches provide a yardstick for assessing success, as well as a broad strategy rooted in serving the public and any plans for development or expansion.
Third, I would argue that donors have an obligation to tie their philanthropy to the origin of their profit. Businesses should be giving to things that relate to their business impact. If a company is public (is owned by the public), then private use of its wealth can be seen as a form of corruption. Businesses should show how their giving helps remedy problems or externalities generated by their activities. It is a cliche but nonetheless true that a lot of giving goes to support the arts, which often have very little to do with a business's activities other than "the CEO's spouse likes opera." As most people know, a majority of giving comes from individual donors, and the societal sector that receives the most funding is religion. Religion is fine insomuch as it was the very origin of civil society in the West. But I would like to see giving go more toward solving business problems directly. As Andrew Carnegie advocated in his essay "The Gospel of Wealth," wealth must be circulated back into society for the good of society and not squandered.
Meanwhile, I would disagree with Mike that business activities never led to social change. Businesses roles in social change include: the positive impact Google has had in China and Twitter has had in Iran; or on the other hand the negative impact mining and weapons manufacturers have had from Angola to West Virginia. Worldwide, the communications revolution and interdependence through economic globalization are some of the most critical meta-forces in international affairs today. Another meta-force is the broad demand worldwide for self-determination, which has been partly fostered by a growing and empowered middle class in many countries, such as South Korea and Indonesia.
Finally and most fundamentally, we all should ask: How we define profit? Is it long-term or short-term? What are the benefits and what are the costs? I hope that Mike's book will help philanthropists as well as businesses think more broadly about these questions--for their sake and for the planet's.