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C.HOW dog with Andrew Carnegie at The Carnegie Musical Hall, Pittsburgh PA

What the past can teach us about the future of Corporate Social Responsibility

These three things are demonstrably good: charity, social responsibility, and business. Unfortunately they are too often considered three separate bodies, actions, and entities rather than three aspects of culture that, when properly and effectively woven together as they should be can deliver positive results for all parties, and do so consistently for many years. The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is not new, but as our culture continues to understand, and deal with the consequences of climate change, sustainability CSR has become more popular among businesses, and important to consumers. The future of the planet is of the utmost importance, but true CSR should consider not only the planet, but the people who live, love, and labor across all corners of her crust. A successful business owes much of its success to the men and women who established and run it, but it also owes a debt to the culture and society in which it was permitted to flourish. CSR can help make a better planet and a better consumer, and in turn make for better business. Sounds pretty good, right?

This idea was well articulated over a hundred years ago by Andrew Carnegie in his essay, The Gospel of Wealth. A Robber Baron to some, and a man of immense character to others, there is no doubt that Carnegie was a titan of the industrial revolution. He achieved astounding wealth and success during a time that, like today, saw modern sciences and technology over-turning every aspect of life and industry. You can’t argue with the volume of his contributions to others. He was a great philanthropist, giving away 90% of his personal fortune before his death. In his essay, he gives a stark example of how much things had changed in his life-time:

The master and his apprentices worked side by side, the latter living with the master [in] the same conditions. When these apprentices rose to be masters there was little or no change in their mode of life, and they, in turn educated succeeding apprentices.

In an era of history when those engaged in industrial labor had limited ability to participate in governance, Carnegie wrote, “There was [among workers] social equality, even political equality.” The aristocracy is no more, and we can thank the industrial revolution for a part in that, but that means for the last century we have all been laborers, all participants in industry to some extent. Yet the relationship between master and apprentice as described by Carnegie seems so archaic it may as well have come from a different civilization entirely. A return to the relationship Carnegie illustrated is hard to imagine, but the image is important nonetheless. It calls to mind a time when the master was so involved with the apprentice that he shared his home with him, when the distance between the established and the aspiring was inches rather than millions of dollars in salary.

Enormous salaries are fine, but the distance between the successful and the poor is greater than just salary differential. The two groups may as well live in different cultures, and we are not as enmeshed in the idea as we were during Carnegie’s time – when the differences in quality of life was far greater – that both executives and industrial laborers were cogs in the same American machine.

Fortunately we have examples like Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet who are actively giving away their fortunes to many causes that help fortify and educate the less fortunate. Their behavior calls to mind two of Carnegie’s maxims, the first being that a man should spend the first third of life getting as much education as he can, the second third earning as much money as he can, and the final third giving away as much money as he can. The second is that a man should not be, “content to wait until he is dead before he becomes of much good to the world.”

The future is exciting for CSR, with companies being formed with ideals of social responsibility mixed into their foundations, as part of their fundamental DNA rather than a cosmetic adjustment. Salesforce Chief Executive Marc Benihoff asks us to:

Consider what would happen if a top-tier venture-capital firm required the companies in which it invested to place 1% of their equity into a foundation serving the communities in which they do business.

If what Benihoff is considering were to become common practice in the funding of new companies, we would succeed in following the ideals laid out in The Gospel of Wealth, but they would in fact be taken one step further. The second third of our lives, the part Carnegie advised be used to earn as much money as possible, could merge with the ideals of the final third, making the process of giving back, of making sure that the communities in which our businesses operate are productive places for all people on every rung of the socioeconomic ladder.

In the meantime, c.how‘s mission is to make it easy for companies to give back. It supports customers rounding up for charity, but goes beyond customers paying more it’s about businesses paying smart. If you’re ordering lunch anyway, why not have a portion of the bill go toward feeding the local food insecure?

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