The perils of generosity: When sincerity clashes with greed

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070703-N-0979M-013 LIGAO, Philippines (July 3, 2007) - Seabees assigned to the Amphibious Construction Battalion 1 and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 shovel concrete mixture into a pile during a community relations project at the Honest Anislag Duraga Transition Center in support of Pacific Partnership 2007. Pacific Partnership brings together the U.S. military and participating non-governmental organizations in a humanitarian mission to demonstrate the generosity and humanity of people working together to establish a secure and stable tomorrow. The four-month deployment builds on the success of Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and her 2006 deployment to the region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Leonard Mandap (RELEASED)
A legitimate example of how publicity can correlate with generosity — but see below about how publicity initiatives can be abused.
LIGAO, Philippines (July 3, 2007) – Seabees assigned to the Amphibious Construction Battalion 1 and Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 7 shovel concrete mixture into a pile during a community relations project at the Honest Anislag Duraga Transition Center in support of Pacific Partnership 2007. Pacific Partnership brings together the U.S. military and participating non-governmental organizations in a humanitarian mission to demonstrate the generosity and humanity of people working together to establish a secure and stable tomorrow. The four-month deployment builds on the success of Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) and her 2006 deployment to the region. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Leonard Mandap (RELEASED)

Donna Leyens presents the perspective in a Provendus Group posting that it makes sense for businesses to have a generous spirit, both internally and externally. She provides some great examples of businesses which have thrived despite (or more accurately because of) outsized employee benefits. For example, the small restaurant with full health and 401K benefits avoids staff turnover and attracts incredible employees (the same concept Henry Ford applied when he originally offered assembly workers outsize wages — initially a brilliant concept — because he attracted the best and most capable workers, who would never miss a shift (the golden handcuff.)

Leyens writes;

The bottom line – doing good and giving back, either to your employees or to a cause you believe in, might actually boost your bottom line as well! So yes, giving is good for business.

But can a good concept go wrong? Unfortunately, I think so, and I believe this occurs when the generosity becomes something less-than-sincere; used as a PR trick, or more severely, to cover major unethical behaviours and dishonesty within the business itself.

For obvious reasons, I cannot name names with the examples below.

In the first, I received a news release from a contractor’s public relations agency extolling the business’s generosity and charitable support. The business works in a field where there are plenty of unsavory fly-by-night operations. In this case, the business might genuinely do good deeds, but as I read through the news release (and the personalized follow-up email from the company’s PR rep) I thought: Why does this business want/need to blow its own horn this way? I think the story would have had more credibility if members of the public or perhaps the charitable organizations had initiated some recognition for the contractor. As it was, I sent the file to our advertising sales department to see if the contractor, ready to pay for public relations services to announce his contributions, would also be ready to pay for the positive publicity he seeks in our media.

The second story happens to be more challenging. I know of an organization that seeks to raise the image/reputation of its industry. Its directors and voluntary contributors truly practice the generosity principles and really make important community contributions.

However, alas, good can attract bad. Recently, the organization has received serious complaint calls from customers who have had disappointing experiences with some member businesses. The consumers made note that they chose the business because of its purported links to the association. It seems the shady operators make a big deal about their association membership, showing how it reflects their integrity — as part of a sales pitch that ultimately went wrong. Over the years, I’ve noticed this most painful situation tends to occur in organizations that seek to advance the ethics of businesses with generally poor reputations. The story repeats, alas, usually with less-than-happy endings.

The third example relates to a non-profit organization, which we’ve supported extensively over the years. It’s legitimacy is undeniable, and there is genuine mutual respect. (Our relationships here and with other organizations and associations reflect the generosity principle at its best. Their leaders, and the businesses which truly support the worthy causes with meaningful contributions know and respect this support.) The executive officer once, in a moment of frustration, described how annoyed she gets with businesses who think giving some overstock materials or surplus in-kind junk is worthy of full-blown recognition. She doesn’t want others’ cast-off junk.

The conclusion: Generosity and community support, when sincere, undoubtedly has real business value. But if you are doing it to cover your unethical behaviours, or because you think it is the ticket to free publicity, or you perhaps want to grab a big tax write-off and maybe some extensive recognition for clearing your warehouse of surplus garbage, you don’t get it.

Let’s be real about our generosity. If we are to earn recognition and the benefits from sincere helpfulness, let it be validated (from the heart) by the people and organizations we support, rather than our own self-serving agendas.

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