Altruism’s Alchemy

…billionaires want to see a company’s commitment to social change prioritized ABOVE financial returns.”

Sometimes we embark upon a journey without a full understanding of how we’re going to get to our destination. But we know that we need to make the journey and we have a certain degree of trust/faith in our abilities to navigate the potholes on the path from A to B. When you travel at night, your path isn’t completely illuminated from start to finish; instead, you have a plan (map) and the illumination (headlights) to get you to the next point in your journey.

Altruism is kind of like that. We all know that there are ways that we can become better (people, organizations, fill-in-your-preferred-blank). We all know that we can feel better when we do good and/or empower good to happen. But sometimes, we don’t really know where we’ll end up or how we’ll get there  and that can be infinitely scary to many, and really scary for those whose jobs, businesses and careers may depend upon their decision-making.

If you work for a large corporation or business, and you have responsibilities in the areas of Corporate Social Responsibility, you are probably familiar with the fear and trepidation that arises when you embark on a new journey of engagement with a philanthropic cause or charitable partner. You know that you want to do good through your collaborative work and you’ve probably already made a compelling business case to support your plans. And yet, there are moments when you might question the logic of linking your corporate activities to the complicated extensions of any for-cause or nonprofit endeavour.

Leaving aside the concerns of ‘shared goals’ and ‘common language’ (and those aren’t small concerns to leave aside), there’s the fundamental question of ROI that every business/corporate executive must wrestle with: will this ‘investment’ provide a meaningful and measurable return to our organization? And what kind of ‘return’ should we expect, beyond the dollars-in, dollars-out calculus?

These are challenging questions (thankfully, Second Revolution Communications can help) to answer but there’s some high level perspectives that, hopefully, give you a sense of the impetus behind embracing social good as a corporate initiative — and that pressure is coming from your bosses and your bosses’ bosses.

A recent survey of 400 philanthropists, with at least $5 million in invested assets, conducted by BNP Paribas demonstrated that billionaires agree that health is the most important issue they can pour their money into. And more importantly, the majority of these billionaires want to see a company’s commitment to social change prioritized ABOVE financial returns.

In the survey, around 52% of respondents saw “impact/mission investing” as the most promising trend in philanthropy. Generally-stated, impact investing means directing investment dollars towards socially responsible companies to prioritize social and environmental returns, even if it meant lower financial returns. Coming from the Gordon Gecko/GREED IS GOOD generation, this is a radical change from previous decades in which financial returns were the ONLY consideration that mattered.

But hang on a minute, you say, eventually some positive must accrue to the business is they are to continue to make social investments… so how does that happen? Well, in many ways, I see it as akin to the medieval science/practice/speculative philosophy called Alchemy. Alchemy is loosely defined, for more modern readers, as any magical power or process of transmuting a common substance, usually of little value, into a substance of great value.

Let’s say, for example, that you are a business leader in the healthcare field. You know that through your on-going operations you can support a number of charitable endeavours  and doing so makes you feel good about yourself and your work, and that mindset is shared by your team members and fellow employees. So it is kind of a ‘feel good’ investment, with returns uncertain beyond a potential halo of positivity that should/hopefully deliver some benefits in return.

But what if, in addition to (or in conjunction with) your charitable investments in a local get-fit-get-healthy program to reduce obesity, diabetes and other weight-related concerns, you are also developing tools and technology to address these problems through the conduit of your own operations. You’d be doing immense good for your local community  and creating the conditions to develop new products and services to drive your business forward.

This thought struck me as I was reading how drug firms are using Fitbits (step-measuring and health management apps/tools) to gather data. I can imagine two disparate streams of conversations taking place: one conversation about a charitable investment, another with the R&D team looking for ideas and inspiration. And somehow, almost like magic, the streams of these two conversations start to merge and suddenly what started out as a journey to do some good in your local community transforms into an exciting (and potentially lucrative) new business opportunity that can help to sustain the organization, its employees and its philanthropic activities, too.

Sometimes in life, we know we need to make a journey but aren’t always sure how we’ll get there. As it pertains to helping nonprofits and charitable organizations to do more good in the work that they do, your journey will likely lead you to all sorts of new adventures and introduce you to new and interesting people. Along the way, you just might be struck by inspiration that can be truly revolutionary for your business. And, you can thank your willingness to embrace of altruism for helping to unlock the opportunity.

Image: “A lady visiting an alchemist’s laboratory” by Jan Josef Horemans, 1682-1759.

David McConnachie

David McConnachie

David is a marketing professional with many years of high level, client-centric experience, most recently serving as the Business Manager for Alternatives Journal (A\J).

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