Andrew Carnegie left a remarkable legacy. Though a successful and brilliant businessman of the Gilded Age, today it’s not his immense success that comes to mind, it’s his charitable activities.
Carnegie said a great many things regarding wealth and the responsibility of those who have a surplus to use it for the benefit of the community. In fact, it was his pursuit of making knowledge equally accessible to all that resulted in the funding for public library systems across the US.
“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration,” Carnegie wrote.
Free accessibility to information has long been the great equalizer. One of the most effective ways to keep slaves dependent and in bondage was to deny them education, literacy, and books. A means to even the playing field, public libraries and education are examples of the pursuit of democracy in its most sincere form.
Social responsibility campaigns today
Jumping forward to the 21st century, corporations, wealthy moguls, and a more accessible (i.e., smaller) global community present new opportunities to launch social cause campaigns and bring greater equality to the poor and disenfranchised. Such is the vision of Facebook’s founder and wunderkind, Mark Zuckerberg.
He recently unveiled Internet.org, a project aimed at bringing free and accessible internet service to the five billion people in the world who are currently excluded from the World Wide Web. In partnership with seven other major IT companies, non-profit organizations, and various communities, the goal is lofty but could bring major improvements in the quality of life, health, and human rights across the globe.
This isn’t a surprising trend. More than ever, job seekers are considering what impact their work will make on the world, choosing companies based on their social-good missions (which often include a week’s worth of paid time off to volunteer each year).
Microsoft’s Bill Gates could be said to have launched this breed of corporation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made great inroads in eliminating malaria and other persistent diseases in developing nations.
The business case
Corporate social responsibility isn’t merely altruistic. It can have very real and positive impacts on the bottom line. In the simplest terms, these are the campaigns that fight the “hearts and minds” battles of business. Branding, marketing, and a positive impact on individuals outside of consumer deliverables can be incredibly powerful.
From a more pragmatic viewpoint, pursuing such corporate policies has very real effects on the reduction of costs and risks. For example, by implementing eco-friendly “green” initiatives, companies not only earn the goodwill of the consuming public, but see long-term cost reductions.
In practicing equal employment laws, costs are also reduced, thanks to lower turnover. And risk is substantially cut by negating the volume of potential litigation.
Corporate philanthropy can be viewed and acted upon in many ways, but as it engages the community, it provides real and lasting change for the better and sets the corporation apart. The result is a very real competitive advantage.
Changing the world
For better or for worse, history showcases how corporations change the world. Drastically altering and reshaping the landscape, what daily life looks like, and ultimately the quality of life for many, it’s an incredible responsibility.
Granted, the public sector plays a role in social change as well, but when considering far-reaching global change, the corporate conscience (and funds) can make significant contributions.
In tackling such a lofty goal, Mark Zuckerberg throws down the gauntlet to other corporate leaders to get engaged, make a difference, and reap the personal and business rewards that come from pursuing the greater good.