Just How Enlightened Should Your Self-Interest Be?

There used to be funds in every company budget for something called "corporate social responsibility." The funds were meant to be spent on "enlightened self-interest,” which had a pretty fungible definition. It could mean that you supported educational institutions that fed potential employees into your sector. It could mean that you helped improve cities in which you had offices — or that you helped employees pay expenses for their charitable work. On the other hand, it could be money spent on causes important to one of your bigger clients, because they passed the hat among their vendors.

Sometimes the spending is transparently embarrassing, such as when Mark Zuckerberg randomly donated $100 million to the Newark school system on the same day as the premiere of “The Social Network,”  a movie that depicted him as pretty much a jerk. Years later, studies showed that the donation had no measurable impact.

Some management gurus argue that the business of business is business, and that companies should not use shareholder funds to try and change the world. But most businesses still spend on causes they think are in their "enlightened self-interest,” including on campaigns that have strong PR value, even if they don't necessarily impact the bottom line in some accountable way.

For example, Starbucks has created a 10-part original series in three formats -- written, video, and podcast -- to inspire Americans to engage in acts of compassion, citizenship, and civility. And just to make sure you notice, they have their PR firm running a "multimillion-dollar" awareness campaign. Hmmm? To drive audience or take credit? Perhaps a little of each.

"This really is squarely a social impact endeavor for us," Rajiv Chandrasekaran, SVP and executive producer of the company’s social impact media initiatives, told the press. "It is not a brand campaign; it is not a product promo campaign; it is about trying to do the right thing for our country at an important moment. We want to harness our scale for good."

If the series gets traction and goes even a little viral on social media, there will be all sorts of dashboard calculations on the "impact" of the program.  

That seems to be the currency of the PR realm these days: “Look at all of the social media mentions we got!" Some Starbucks loyalists will video themselves doing something kind and suggest viewers pass along that kindness. But will the world change because Starbucks asks it to?

The Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS raised about $115 million (a very good thing), but critics suggested that the ease of the challenge did not increase awareness of what the disease actually does and who it is so harmful to (a bad thing?). “Some people didn’t even know about ALS—it just became Ice Bucket Challenge,” said Charity Navigator’s Acting COO Tim Gamory. “So it would be interesting to see data as far as what people actually know. I can tell you from our site, the searches for ALS went up a ridiculous amount, from around 500 to 68,000 in August. And then it went right back down... as far as any longer term impact on those donor people who were exposed, it’s questionable. Many of the donors were flash-in-the-pan.”

The folks at Starbucks are not naive. I suspect they know that their efforts will probably not have a long-term impact on compassion, citizenship, and civility in America. Zuckerberg proved that spending on something more concrete is not always effective, either.

So, you are the CEO of a big public company. Do you allocate funds for something nearly impossible to measure, and write it off as good PR exposure? The comments box is yours.

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