why should companies give back

Enlightened self-interest. Simply put, you benefit from living and working in a better society. If you contribute to bettering society, you’re more likely to realize that benefit.

I first ran into the concept of “enlightened self-interest”  in my political science studies. We were discussing voting – why would a rational person vote? A single vote has never swayed a US federal election.

Because voting is in the best long-term interest of both the voter and society. You’re investing in a societal structure of which you are a part. You’re contributing to a system that requires your participation to function.  You’re fulfilling your duty as a member of a species that thrives only when collaborative.

Unfortunately, us humans are notorious for our bias towards short-term thinking. So the above doesn’t apply to the majority of us, on an intellectual level.

So, what do we do? If our values are rooted in enlightened self-interest, what principle can connect those values to our actions? I have a proposal – be more responsive to our selves.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, I believe we’re wired to be selfless on a societal level. Individually, we all feel that pang in our stomachs when we’re presented with an option between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and we choose ‘bad’. Some people feel that pang when they watch one more TV episode instead of reading or calling a loved one. Others feel it when they say something negative about someone ‘behind his or her back’. I feel it when I tell a ‘white lie’. Regardless, that pang is our brain pinching us for letting our short-term-thinking selves justify a choice that helps us now, but hurts us later. The hurt may not come back to us personally, but it will be felt somewhere in society.

That pang is a visceral manifestation of our enlightened self-interested self, and it’s looking out for us in ways we struggle to comprehend. In a business setting, it knows a company’s worth should not be measured by its valuation, nor profit, nor market cap. A company’s worth should be measured by the positive impact it has on the world. Startup hyperbole, for sure. But seriously.

Let’s clear all the bullshit we tell ourselves about how we’ll give back later, when we have the resources to do it.  Our enlightened self-interested selves are urging us to start now. Feel that pang and act. Simply enough, it’s the path of least resistance to not suppress it.

Yes, you can dig into studies that show you’ll benefit economically from giving back. This is intellectually true. But don’t do it because it makes business sense. Be more primal than that. Do it because it satisfies the evolutionary mechanism that drives you.

That’s the beautiful thing about being human. Doing what’s best for your self can often be what’s best for society at large. In this case, it’s a feature of the system, so exploit it.

And when a company like c.how lowers the barrier for giving back, let’s reward their enlightened self-interest by utilizing their offerings. It’s the simple thing to do.


Zach Goldfine is the co-founder of Opus For Work and a founding member of the SF Chapter of Represent.Us.

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