Society’s Return on Investment: The Cult of What’s In It For Me Deepens

Over the past 35 years I have been a pioneer in promoting greater cooperation on environment and development among business, government and civil society. Far from naivete mine was a hard-nosed, practical strategy to blunt the single minded pursuit of money at the expense of public health, social justice and the natural world. 

Capitalism has become a religion, its house of worship the bank and Wall Street it’s Vatican. Material wealth has become an obsession and the church and its members come first, the people and future be damned if they get in the way scrambling for crumbs. I can’t remember the first time I heard someone mention WIFM but quickly “what’s in it for me” became a mantra, a way of life.  Making good money wasn’t enough, ways needed to be found to extract greater and greater returns, faster and faster and faster. Everything had to be recruited to the cause, even charities who should be devoting their time and money to serving people in need, building our schools, hospitals and cultural institutions and protecting our children and environment. 

As philanthropy declined the rise of cause-related marketing gave favour to charitable activities more easily used to promote brand and product. Why give to a shelter for abused women or a campaign to clean up contaminated rivers when the Olympics called, offering a tantalizing basket of goodies and great photo-ops. As the cult of WIFM has grown, and marketing overtook philanthropy I have been increasingly asked about “return on investment.“ Look, it’s fair that donors are recognized for their support and it’s important to say thank you. That inspires others to help. However, when did it become the job of charities to produce benefits for the donor? That’s not a charitable donation it’s a fee for service and it favours large groups offering greater marketing opportunities. The demand for “ROI “bothered and puzzled me and I gave it a great deal of thought. Do charities owe their donors a return on investment? No, in fact, the ROI argument needs to be stood on its head. Business owes society a return on its investment for the tremendous support received in the form of tax breaks and subsidies, infrastructure, R&D grants, support from trade missions, embassies, government advertising and much much more. Look, a healthy, educated, prosperous society is the best place to do business and that’s sufficient reason for generous support for social development, education, health, culture and a clean environment. 

Business needs to be reminded that it serves society not the reverse. A mine or abattoir investing in improved production is not practicing corporate responsibility (CSR) any more than a company using environmental contributions to promote its cars. Let’s be honest about that. And, saving money on energy efficiency, improving poor labour standards, reducing harm to the environment and public health are responsibilities not good deeds. Business has a responsibility to invest in society beyond simply meeting regulatory obligations, compensating for harm done or using causes for marketing or public relations. Yes I understand we need successful businesses to create wealth and provide jobs so that families can provide food and shelter and education and contribute to healthy communities. It’s even fair for those who take the risk to enjoy the benefits of their ingenuity and hard work. At the same time we need to re-envision the role of business in society and that’s our decision, as a society.

Wealthy companies and executives should be encouraged to make greater investment in social development, health, education, culture and environment, whether it’s legislated or driven by public pressure. If not voluntary then let’s talk about repaying society for health, environment and other costs of careless or cynical operating practices. Society has paid dearly for excesses of the past and present such as cleaning up abandoned oil wells. We must adopt a healthier approach to building society and that cause won’t be advanced by crass manipulation of important causes for commercial gain. Please don’t misunderstand, I don’t object to companies receiving applause for doing the right thing, they should, but let’s get the purpose right and not place business goals over society’s best interests. We need to work together so that we can enjoy healthy, happy lives without exploiting other people, destroying the environment or stealing from future generations.