Yet like many good things, philanthropy can turn out badly if not done in the right way. In fact, among those who cause the greatest damage to the world are the irresponsible do-gooders: one of the soundest maxims in the ancient store of wisdom is the paradox that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” It is even possible to do more harm than good with the wrong kinds of philanthropy— a bitter irony indeed for those who give generously of their time and money only to see their efforts wreak havoc among those they intended to help.
When businesspeople look to philanthropy for a solution to society’s needs, as well as to their own compassionate impulses, they may find a rewarding experience that both benefits the world and provides them with personal satisfaction. Or they may find a frustrating, dissatisfying experience. What makes the difference in these two results? The difference lies in whether the person applies the same skill, care, and values to philanthropy that he or she has used to achieve success in the business world.
Too many people assume that simply being willing to give is enough to ensure a positive result. The reasons that move people in business to engage in philanthropic work can make them especially susceptible to well-intentioned errors that can damage the very cause to which they have dedicated themselves. The motives seem so pressing—the powerful combination noted earlier—that they rarely stop to ask the fundamental questions that they would ask of any new business venture: Who benefits from this investment? Who may be hurt? What are its unintended consequences? Are there better uses of these same funds?
The problem is that many businesspeople do not look beyond the compelling reasons that they have for engaging in philanthropy. The reasons themselves are so well balanced—combining value to the self and value to society—that they seem to justify just about any act of philanthropic giving. Herein lies the danger. In fact, philanthropy is a serious enterprise, rife with pitfalls, risks, and other complications. Deciding to give philanthropically is only the first step in accomplishing good work. The reasons that bring business- people to that decision, however strong they may be, do not automatically ensure a successful charitable result.
It may surprise successful business leaders to hear that good work in philanthropy is at least as hard to do as good work in business. It requires at least the same degree of understanding, the same attention to moral means and moral ends, and the same kind of personal humility that provide the foundation for a successful business career. Just as there is a moral advantage in business, so too is there one in philanthropy. In fact, the ability to do good work in the two spheres is closely linked, drawing from the same source of character and virtue. It is true that everyone in business should engage in philanthropy; it is just as true that everyone should take the effort and acquire the skill to do it in the right way.
The first step is realizing that giving money away is not a sure-fire, straight-shot, slam-dunk means of doing good in the world. It is not a quick and easy way to solve the world’s problems and promote your own interests by throwing money at your favorite social cause. In fact, philanthropy is a serious endeavor with the potential of doing great good or great harm, depending on how you go about it. Succeeding in giving money to good effect is every bit as challenging as succeeding in making money.
This statement is so counterintuitive that it requires some explanation. It is natural to assume that any act of charity is worthwhile and to feel good about any act of giving. It is hard to confront the possibility that some acts of giving can be harmful; and it is harder still to take responsibility for the consequences—and not just the intentions—of gifts. We tend to think that giving itself is such a laudatory action that this should be enough. But good work in philanthropy requires far more than the willingness to give alone.
The purpose of the following section is to provide people in business with the knowledge about philanthropy that they must have to do good work in this challenging endeavor. I focus here on the harms that philanthropy can cause, not because I believe that people in business should shy away from charitable giving—quite the opposite—but rather because I want them to understand that good work in philanthropy demands a humble attitude, a rigorous application of high standards, and a lot of careful and well-informed judgments.