Create the Future!  
Community-Driven Institute

Biting the Hand that Feeds
(Or At Least Talking Behind Their Backs)
by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc. 2000©

When I was growing up, my Dad owned a small store in a declining inner city neighborhood. As the faces in the neighborhood changed, my Dad was always the same, greeting each customer by name and bringing their stories home at dinner time. I always thought my Dad was the luckiest man alive, to know such amazing people.

Next door to my Dad's store was a hardware store. The owner was vocal in his disdain for the changing color of the neighborhood. Being the only hardware store left in the neighborhood, the residents had little choice but to shop there, but they hated him as much as he hated them. The more he mistrusted them, the worse they treated him; and the worse they treated him, the more it reinforced to him how justified he was in his opinion of them all.

We in the NonProfit world pride ourselves on our open minds. We identify with my Dad. We reflexively hate his neighbor. And deep down, we figure that if the neighbor's shop were burned in a riot, we would understand why, and we might even secretly cheer.

We shouldn't be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. Because there is a bigotry that runs just as deep in the world of philanthropy. And just as it threatened my Dad's neighbor, it threatens the integrity of the work we do. It threatens our very existence.

I am talking about the anti-business bias felt by so many in the NonProfit world.

We hear it in different ways, but it all sounds pretty much the same. Usually it is whispered, or spoken only among a certain circle. "They don't really care about our causes, they just want to look good - cause-related marketing." "Why would they give us such a gift? What's in it for them?" The bottom line sentiment is:

"Businesses only care about money, and individual business people only care about money. Their philanthropy isn't REAL philanthropy."

And just like my Dad's neighbor, who would swear it wasn't a bias, but "Just look how those people act," we, too, believe we are being objective as we talk behind the backs of the very companies and business people who make our good work possible - our donors and board members.

I know about corporate philanthropy first hand. And I also see the bias firsthand. I own a For Profit business, a consulting firm that works with NonProfits and Native American Tribes. Through my company, I have the opportunity to work closely with NonProfit boards and staffs across the country, and to see and feel their responses to the business world. But also through my company, we give substantially to the community, and it is through that giving that I understand philanthropy.

After our first year in business, we created and hosted an event to benefit a few agencies that help children - something simple and effective to give back to the community during the holidays. The event was such a huge success that, as it grew year after year, it began to take over our lives. Last year, the event benefitted 30 agencies, taking months away from our real work. This year, the event has finally left the nest and become its own entity, the Southern Arizona Community Diaper Bank, providing diapers to every single agency in Tucson that works with needy populations.

As for benefit to my firm, the event has put us in the red for the past 3 years. The local PR has no value to us, because all our business is in other states and countries - we have chosen not to work close to home.

Why would we do such a thing? Simply because it needed to be done. We had discovered an unmet need, and we worked to meet it. We simply couldn't NOT do it.

I know it is hard to make the leap to think that a larger company might also give only because it is the right thing to do. Through our own philanthropy, however, I have had the opportunity to discuss philanthropy with leaders of large corporations. And they give for the same reasons - because they feel an obligation to give back to the world that has given to them. A leader in the banking industry once told me "It has to be God, family, and the bank, in that order."

Those of us involved in the NonProft world might benefit from reading James Collins and Jerry Porras's groundbreaking book, Built to Last, a well-researched account of visionary companies worldwide - those who, despite hardship, always seem to come out as the premier institution in their industry. Their findings? That the companies who succeed the best are those for which there exists a set of core values and a sense of purpose beyond just making money. Put another way, the same things that make up a decent and successful human being are those qualities that make up a successful business.

Businesses are no more or less than a collection of human beings, with human values. And those values are expressed, among other ways, through their volunteerism and philanthropy.

Until those in the NonProfit world can rid themselves of their anti-business bias, their struggles will only continue. It is an 'us and them' mentality that is counter-productive at best, and ugly at its worst. NonProfits want corporate support, want business people on their boards to raise money. And yet they sneer at the values of corporate entities, suggesting that the word values should be put in quotes when it comes to corporations - that all they really value is money.

Now it is true that there are companies who will jump on a cause-marketing bandwagon because they think it's good for the bottom line. But is it fair to lump corporations with a history of giving back to the world in with those who are merely following the trends? Do a few bad people of any race or religion justify bigotry against that whole race?

Lumping all corporate giving in with those who take advantage of the perception of charity is a horrible bias, as harmful as any other stereotype. It is harmful because it creates a disrespect for the corporations that help our NonProfits do the good work they do, and automatically discounts the many individual human beings who comprise that corporation - the givers of that gift. And it is harmful because it creates an unspoken resentment by staff members of business-minded board members who govern the organization. Like any prejudice, it is insidious, quiet yet dangerously present.

By discounting the motives of all businesses, we lose opportunities. Not just the opportunity to get more money, but the more important opportunity - the chance for a real relationship, a real partnership. The opportunity to work together, as real partners with shared expertise - the kind of relationship that makes the whole better than the individual parts could ever be. That will never happen when we see the other party as a necessary evil, a money tree, to be tapped and yet scorned at the same time.

Without a healthy business environment, there is no money for charity. Period. Even those of us who proudly wear the moniker of "liberal" have to concede that point.

NonProfits can keep thinking they are justified in their anti-business bias, or they can look for opportunities to forge human relationships that provide real and meaningful giving. They can stop suspecting the motivations of those who give, and start getting to know them as people. Start educating them, working with them, one at a time.

People who run businesses, from the corner store to IBM, are individual human beings, first and foremost, and they have real hearts that beat. Stop missing the opportunity to work with them, to teach them and to learn from them. And watch your community benefit.



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