Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Private virtue, public vice December 17, 2006

In 1989, a much admired and powerful lady who was raising funds for her NGO, asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I worked for a company. “Oh, but what do you really do—I mean for society?” she said. I became defensive and began to recount our philanthropic activities in the districts where our factories were located. ‘Is that all!’ thundered the eminence grise. I was hurt by her dismissive attitude, and recently remembered this incident when Sonia Gandhi reminded fawning businessmen in the same imperious tone about their corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR has become a buzz word these days, and one newspaper even has a CSR reporter. But why is it that something so worthy and high-minded leaves me uneasy? I think it is because companies have no business engaging in philanthropy and businessmen should value more what they do.

“The social responsibility of business is to make a profit,” famously said Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winner who died last month. He explained that in making a profit a company creates thousands of jobs, both directly and indirectly through suppliers, distributors and retailers. It imparts valuable skills to its employees. It pays crores in taxes. It improves the lives of millions of satisfied customers with its products and services. This is an enormous service to society. If some shareholders get rich on the way, so what? Companies should focus single-mindedly on their competence, providing goods and services better than their competitors, and not get distracted by extraneous activity. A company’s social responsibility is to make profits legally, not to harm nature, and uphold the highest standards of governance.

Yet, I intensely admire individuals who engage in philanthropy. I was deeply moved by Warren Buffet’s selfless gesture when he gave away all his wealth to Bill Gates’ foundation. I agree with Andrew Carnegie that to die rich is to die disgraced. If it is immoral to spend the company’s money, it is businessmen’s duty to spend their own money on charity (from after-tax profits). It is a theft against Reliance’s shareholders if Reliance Industries builds a hospital, but it is Mukesh Ambani’s duty to do so. Hence, Tatas do their charity work through their trusts, from dividends received from Tata companies. CSR should thus be relabelled ISR, Individual Social Responsibility, and each of us ought to feel the need to give back.

This is fine in theory, but the reality is that few Indians feel the philanthropic urge, which emerges it seems at a later stage of capitalism. In order that the few sources of present funding don’t dry up, we cannot allow corporate funding to cease. We can ensure its legitimacy if companies fix rigorous criteria for giving. Corporate philanthropy must enhance company profits, strengthening the brand or promoting goodwill in the community. For example, when Citibank funds a college to train micro-finance professionals, it enhances its brand.

Glib talk about CSR reflects our prejudice against businessmen. Adam Smith wrote in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that he didn’t much care for those who spent their lives chasing “baubles and trinkets”, but he was “immensely grateful that such creatures abounded for the whole of civilisation, and the welfare of all societies depended on people’s desire and ability to accumulate unneeded capital and show off their wealth. Indeed, it …first prompted men to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths and to invent all the sciences and arts which ennoble and embellish human life.”


Anonymous said...

I would not agree in saying that philanthropy is not an economic value add to the organisation. Most corporate houses and organisations indulge in CSR not out ethical involvement (the deontological or teleological variety) but out of a need to establish long term sustainability.

Growing the community means increasing the net base of people who could become your future consumers or stake holders. It prompts a move from short term shareholder profits to long term shareholder value. Some global asset management organisations have realised this and even have an 'ethical organisation' portfolio in which they invest.

With the failure of the state to provide for the economic growth of the community and the success of the corporate world to create value, one can see why CSR is expected from organisations. It all depends on how you define economic profit - short term or long term.

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