Business as a Force for Good

By Ted Yavuzkurt

Pause for a moment and reflect. Now think: who really changes the world?

If you’re anything like me, you probably thought of governments, or activists, or maybe nonprofits. And you’d be right—they do have tremendous power to shape society.

But that mindset leaves out another major player: business.

Now, I’ve always seen business as a force for change—but not always for the better! The news is full of stories about Big Pharma, Big Oil, or Big Banks using capitalism as a justification for ruthlessness. Proverbial “Evil Corporations” can sometimes seem to be the dominant forces in the business world.

I’ve realized that this viewpoint is unnecessarily narrow. Businesses, like people, come in many different forms. Some deserve the ire of society and some don’t.

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And some are really trying to do their part. Today, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is rapidly becoming a standard business practice. Companies of all sizes are managing employee giving campaigns, running philanthropic foundations, and transforming their business models to benefit society.

In other words: Milton Friedman is out. Giving back is in.

PricewaterhouseCooper conducted a massive survey of CEOs this year. What did they find? A whopping 84% of those surveyed say they are now expected to address wider stakeholder needs. To translate that from business-ese: they can’t just make money for people that own stocks. They’ve recognized that they also need to do well by customers, communities, and countries.

This is why Walmart is raising wages and oil corporations are investing in clean energy. Even libertarian capitalists like WholeFoods CEO John Mackey have wholeheartedly embraced CSR. Mackey wrote a book about it: Conscious Capitalism. In his mind, corporations are very well suited to producing value for society – in fact, they have an ethical responsibility to do so.

I second Mackey. Corporations can and should do well for the world. They’re potentially more nimble than NGOs, more responsive to societal demands than governments, and more influential than activists. Companies that choose to leverage their strengths to do good can have an incredibly positive impact.

Look at Unilever: years ago, Unilever realized its warehouse distribution model wouldn’t work well in rural India. Company executives could have sat down and decided that they’d push forward anyway, because the company would still make some money. This would benefit the company and shareholders, but leave Indian society largely unchanged.

This isn’t what Unilever did, however. Instead, it upended its traditional business model and trained local women to resell its products. This was the beginning of Project Shakti—a shift from top-down to bottom-up distribution.
Untitled2.pngProject Shakti

Unilever started the program in 2001. By 2012, more than 65,000 women were participating. These women, on average, had almost doubled their household incomes. Meanwhile, Unilever made $100 million in sales.

Whatever your perspective is on corporations, the scale and power of Project Shakti is indisputable. Unilever didn’t do well by exploitation – it did well by cooperation.

As we look to the future, this type of double bottom line work is going to be ever more important. Governments, NGOs, and activists have done their utmost to create positive change. Now, it’s time to get business involved in giving back.

This is what I like about UniversalGiving (UG). UG has joined the growing ranks of nonprofits who see businesses as partners, not as enemies. Through these partnerships, UG is able to create impact on a scale that is simply impossible acting alone.

All boats rise with the water. It’s time to start looking at business as part of the solution—not part of the problem.

 

 

 

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