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The sin in doing good deeds the business way

The sin in doing good deeds the business way
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First Published: Thu, Dec 25 2008. 10 18 PM IST

Updated: Thu, Dec 25 2008. 10 18 PM IST
Here’s a question for the holiday season: If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good work, is that charity or greed? Do we applaud or hiss?
A new book, Uncharitable, seethes with indignation at public expectations that charities be prudent, non-profit and saintly. The author, Dan Pallotta, argues that those expectations make them less effective, and he has a point.
Pallotta’s frustration is intertwined with his own history as the inventor of fund-raisers such as AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days—events that, he says, netted $305 million (Rs1,494.5 crore) over nine years for unrestricted use by charities. In the aid world, that’s a breathtaking sum.
But Pallotta’s company wasn’t a charity, but rather a for-profit company that created charitable events. Critics railed at his $394,500 salary—low for a corporate chief executive, but stratospheric in the aid world—and at the millions of dollars spent on advertising and marketing and other expenses.
“Shame on Pallotta”, declared one critic at the time, accusing him of “greed and unabashed profiteering”. In the aftermath of a wave of criticism, his company collapsed.
One breast cancer charity that parted ways with Pallotta began producing its own fundraising walks, but the net sum raised by those walks for breast cancer research plummeted from $71 million to $11 million, he says.
Pallotta argues powerfully that the aid world is stunted because groups are discouraged from using such standard business tools as advertising, risk-taking, competitive salaries and profits to lure capital.
“We allow people to make huge profits doing any number of things that will hurt the poor, but we want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them,” Pallotta says. “Want to make a million selling violent video games to kids? Go for it. Want to make a million helping cure kids of cancer? You’re labelled a parasite.”
I confess to ambivalence. I deeply admire the other kind of aid workers, those whose passion for their work is evident by the fact that they’ve gone broke doing it. I’m filled with awe when I go to a place like Darfur and see unpaid or underpaid aid workers in groups such as Doctors Without Borders, risking their lives to patch up the victims of genocide.
I also worry that if aid groups paid executives as lavishly as Citigroup Inc. does, they would be managed as badly as Citigroup. Yet there’s a broad recognition in much of the aid community that a major rethink is necessary, that groups would be more effective if they borrowed more tools from the business world, and that there is too much “gotcha” scrutiny on overhead rather than on what they actually accomplish. It’s notable that leaders of Oxfam and Save the Children have publicly endorsed the book, and it’s certainly becoming more socially acceptable to note that businesses can also play a powerful role in fighting poverty.
“Howard Schultz has done more for coffee growing regions of Africa than anybody I can think of,” Michael Fairbanks, a development expert, said of the chief executive of Starbucks. By helping countries improve their coffee-growing practices and brand their coffees, Starbucks has probably helped impoverished African coffee farmers more than any aid group has.
Fairbanks himself demonstrates that a businessman can do good even as he does well. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, hired Fairbanks’ consulting company and paid it millions of dollars between 2000 and 2007. In turn, Fairbanks helped Rwanda market its coffee, tea and gorillas. Rwandan coffee now retails for up to $55 a pound in Manhattan, wages in the Rwandan coffee sector have soared up to eight-fold, and zillionaires stumble through the Rwandan jungle to admire the wildlife. Kagame thanked Fairbanks by granting him Rwandan citizenship.
There are lots of saintly aid workers in Rwanda, including the heroic Dr Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, and they do extraordinary work. But sometimes, so do the suits.
Isaac Durojaiye, a Nigerian businessman, is an example of the way the line is beginning to blur between businesses and charities. He runs a for-profit franchize business that provides fee-for-use public toilets in Nigeria. When he started, there was one public toilet in Nigeria for every 200,000 people, but by charging, he has been able to provide basic sanitation to far more people than any aid group.
In the war on poverty, there is room for all kinds of organizations. Pallotta may be right that by frowning on aid groups that pay high salaries, advertise extensively and even turn a profit, we end up hurting the world’s neediest. “People continue to die as a result,” he says bluntly. “This we call morality.”
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Thu, Dec 25 2008. 10 18 PM IST