Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Is Corporate Responsibilty Responsible?

The trend of corporations demonstrating social responsibility is a mixed blessing at best. When it comes to values, ethics, and moral stances most people will disagree about the specifics. That's one reason why it is so dangerous to be so public about the good that we think we are doing. I know that most organizations want to foster good will by picking social causes to get behind. But the problem with this is that it is destined to fail when it is not a core business value, and the motive is mixed with marketing.

I am not saying that wanting to promote one's company by doing good is wrong. What I am saying is that promoting one's company by getting behind different causes is not the reason one's company exists. To confuse one's mission and goals with philanthropy is a mistake, unless that is the reason for the organization's existence (like advocacy organizations or Political Action Committees).

Doing good isn't always being good.

I realize that I am going against the popular belief about this, but there are some fundamental principles that are being violated when companies practice social responsibility.
  1. First, most businesses do not exist because of a particular cause. Most exist because they are fulfilling some sort of need or desire that its market enjoys and values. Advocating is not the core mission, even if the cause is good.
  2. Most businesses are not equipped to be informed advocates. Sometimes causes can end up being false solutions, and can expose a company's brand to disrepute. For instance, groups like ColdPlay support carbon credit schemes, which are sometimes very questionable. Do these music groups have time and knowledge to check out how these schemes work, or if they work? Probably not. When Oprah helped set up a school for disadvantaged girls in South Africa, she did so with the best of intentions. But it was with deep embarrassment that she had to admit to the sexual abuses that occurred there. She handled the fallout well, but the initial reveal was somewhat damaging to her brand. On the other hand, she hasn't yet recovered from her public support of Obama or Eckhart Tolle.
  3. Last, most businesses do not take the time to consider where ethics and morals come from. Most believe that morality comes from whatever the current culture accepts. This type of thinking does not lead to deep conviction, but political posturing. Companies that engage in political posturing risk being quickly outdated. (Think about it, how many businesses today would advocate for eugenics or racism as a core value?) And companies that actively promote transitory morality risk total abandonment.

I believe the best way to practice philanthropy is to do so in secret. Just focus on why your company exists and do that well. If what you do cannot be separated from the business you own, understand that your convictions can do more harm than good to your brand—especially if your convictions prove to be unethical.


  1. Kerry,
    Extremely interesting.
    I enjoy reading all of your blogs.
    You do a fantastic job.
    Keep up the great work! :-)

  2. Thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate your comments.


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