The Philanthropic Solution

The Philanthropic Solution

Some believe that a way to salvage virtue in business is by taking a seemingly magnanimous tack: “Make your money first, any way you can, then concentrate on using it to do some good. Grab success by whatever means necessary—you can always redeem yourself later through good works.” What about this commonly tread path of waiting until later to contribute to society through charitable acts? Many well-intentioned people in business turn eagerly to this solution, because they do indeed want to make a difference, to leave something worthwhile behind, to feel that their material gain has done some good beyond just making themselves a bundle. So they figure that they will settle the score by giving back some of that bundle to others philanthropically. This is a familiar way to try to “have it all”—a feathered nest and a sense of moral well-being.

But there are real problems with the solution of philanthropy as a sole means to a moral sense of purpose in business. As preachers often remind their flock, sinners who wait until the eve of judgment day to reform their acts too often never get there. Life has a way of disrupting such plans—through sudden disappointments, unanticipated temptations, twists of fate, or premature death. More problematic still, an act of philanthropy, no matter how generous, cannot undo the damage caused by a wholly self- serving business career. I refer here not only to damage done to society—cheating customers, impoverishing investors, wrecking the community, and so on—but also to oneself, by denying in the prime of life that essential, fulfilling sense that one is engaged in good work.

Most troubling, philanthropy is an endeavor that can go terribly awry if it is done in the wrong way. Giving money away does not ensure a socially useful outcome. In fact, misdirected philanthropy actually does more harm than good. The right way to do philanthropy is with the same convictions that make for a moral life in business. People who in their work lives have not cultivated moral purposes nor developed virtues such as honesty and humility will be unprepared to do good philanthropy late in life, no matter how rich their financial balance sheets. I realize that this may seem a surprising notion, so I have devoted Chapter 6 to showing why and how this is so. That chapter is meant as a cautionary tale for the legions of wealthy businesspeople who make the common mistake of looking for salvation late in life by transforming themselves into philanthropists.

Moral Purpose and Success Go Hand in Hand

I can hear full well, ringing in my ears, the objections to the idea that purpose and success in business must be pursued together, as a piece; that they must not be separated; that they do not stand in opposition to one another; that they need not be traded off against one another in the course of a career. “This is just idealistic nonsense,” some may object. “You get ahead in business by keeping your eye on the ball, attending to the bottom line, squeezing the most out of every chance to cash in, letting nothing stand in your way. Getting distracted by high-minded dreams and noble purposes is a loser’s game. If you’re looking for meaning, read a book or go to church.”

Yet when a person keeps both purpose and success in mind, the two goals promote one another. When a person separates these two, or allows one to fall by the wayside, the person places at risk all the aspirations, personal and moral, that he or she holds. There are many reasons for preventing these two goals from becoming detached. On the positive side, the integration of purpose and success opens the way to insights that lead to better work and competitive advantages. On the negative side, their separation leads to risks that can derail any career.

All business success means the creation of wealth, which enriches founders and shareholders. But enduring and personally satisfying business success means providing something of worth to customers, supporting employees, serving the public interest, and making a contribution to the world. It means not only accumulating money for oneself, but also building a beneficial enterprise that creates value for society, that endures and thrives, and that continues to grow. For this kind of achievement, money is a means to a larger end rather than an end in itself; and the low and the high roads toward that end are not equally serviceable. The high road bestows a proven advantage, a moral advantage, and it is the only sure way to reach the destination.