The End of Charity

As I’m travelling, I’m reading more - so that means it’s time for another impromptu book-review/idea-sharing post.

The book in question this time around is Nic Frances’ ominously titled The End of Charity. The points of the book aren’t that scary though - I find them to be pretty spot-on with what’s needed.

A quick overview:

  • Society’s siloed approach isn’t working: Leaving businesses to focus on making money, and charities to making the world better isn’t really getting anywhere.
  • Value needs to represent more than financial worth: Goods and services need to be given more accurate values which incorporate social and environmental worth.
  • Businesses need to incorporate social and environmental mindsets into their operations: Remove the silos. Don’t leave the ‘doing good’ to a separate organisation (examples: Google Inc and, Microsoft and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, McDonalds and Ronald McDonald House Charities).
  • The market will make it all work: Okay, that’s a little simplistic, but the market does a decent job at helping the best value goods and services come to the fore.

Now the book itself is far more detailed - Frances draws a lot from his own experiences, both in charities and in socially-minded businesses, so there’s no end of real world examples. It’s also extremely easy to digest, so I highly recommend reading it, even if you don’t have much of a business-focused mind.

Granted, some of these ideas can take some getting used to, especially on the left side of politics where broad strokes paint businesses (particularly corporations) as Bad, and charities and other non-profits as Good. A lot of what’s discussed in this book isn’t particularly new to me - I was introduced to the concepts while working at MBO (now Ergo Consulting) (which, perhaps not so surprisingly, had an awesome culture non unlike what Frances outlines for his own Cool nrg). I remember bristling at the idea put forward by our then CEO Paul Steele (who is currently COO at World Vision Australia) that business is the best way to enact social improvement.

A few years have passed since then, though, and I’ve come around to agreeing that the combined approach is far more likely to succeed than the old, siloed way.

Now, this hasn’t led to any dramatic chances in my freelancing lifestyle

  • but it’s got my brain ticking away, so you’ll just have to wait and see what comes of it. That said, what do you you think about all this? Do you agree? Disagree? Do you have some suggestions on how to make the organisation you work for take a more holistic approach?

silky left a comment on 9 Jun, 2008:

the ‘market will make it all work’ is very naive approach imho. it won’t do anything. you need to make it work yourself.

the broad claim that charities don’t work is also a little ridiculous. obviously charities role isn’t to remove problems but help them. you can’t call a charity unsuccessful because the problem they address still exists.

other then that i don’t really know what your point is. businesses should be charitible as well as financially motivated? sure i agree [obviously, look at my linked business], but just because that is a good idea doesn’t mean legit charities should end.

they both have their place.

pat left a comment on 9 Jun, 2008:

Sure, the market comment was very off-the-cuff - and yeah, you don’t just expect things to magically work. But if you interact in the system the same as most/all other businesses do (ie: work hard, etc), then, with things given their proper value, it should work out.

And granted, there’s ifs and shoulds in that statement - but I’m not a business person, so I’m really not the best person to talk about that side of it all.

I think charities are somewhat effective - but I’m not seeing problems like poverty and starvation disappear. The examples in the book are much better at illustrating the point that a business focusing on helping people out of long-term unemployment is far more effective than a charity doing the same thing.

I don’t think businesses should be ‘charitable’ - that’s not enough. They should strive to make sure their approach to business reflects their social and environmental ideals. Handing out money to causes isn’t going to fix the issues the world faces.

silky left a comment on 9 Jun, 2008:

but the point is it’s not one of the other.

and i really don’t believe that charities goal is to remove their given speciality from the planet. that’s too much for them to do, no business venture can do that either. charities help day-to-day things [sometimes] but also focus on long-term things, like petermac say, which does valuable cancer research.

you can’t replace an organisation like petermac with some business that does cancer-research on the side. there needs to be a dedicated organisation for that.

handing out money to causes does help fix many issues. it provides funds for research, help for someone right on the edge, support to people you can’t otherwise afford it.

handing out $2 to your local homeless person probably won’t help them, obviously, but that’s an extreme case.

pat left a comment on 11 Jun, 2008:

Fair points… I’m not quite sure how a business could take care of cancer research. And you’ve caught me on one of my pet hates (binary arguments).

It all warrants some more thinking - thanks for the feedback.

Steve left a comment on 8 Jul, 2008:

Interesting topic of debate. Can business solve the world’s problems or is it in the hands of the charities? If nothing else, the book sounds like a good one, and has been duly added to my Amazon wish list!

A few points.

  • Some research we have done indicates that business is best placed to do something. 41% of people clearly agree that brands should deliver good quality goods and services rather than support charities and causes. Right away, that indicated to me that companies need to step up into this space Frances’ outlines…egro style :)

  • Personally, I think charities are rigged to deliver the best quality service to those that are in need. At World Vision, every dollar we spend on marketing etc etc generates a further $8. If we were a publically traded company, we would be a market darling! We can do more for the world’s poor with $10 than some other business can do with $10.

  • But, this doesn’t mean we can do it all. We are alright as far as development goes, but even that is a huge catch-all statement. We can’t do a lot. The largest issues facing the globe currently (read, Poverty, Environmental stability etc etc) cannot be solved by charities, because they are caused by such inherent actions in the human race. We can slow the descent, and help those in pain, but not really arrest the slide all by ourselves. An attitude that focuses on pure donation will end up keeping us in the spiralling situation we currently find ourselves in.

Business needs to move towards a more sustainable model to ensure our sustainability as a planet as well as their own profitability.

I tend to agree with the anecdotal evidence that states that the green/sustainable business market will soon be all encompassing - and that it promises huge returns for those entrepreneurs smart enough to take the risk.

Luke left a comment on 20 Jul, 2008:

Just a quick comment - what do you mean, Pat, that you’re “not quite sure how a business could take care of cancer research”? What about pharmaceutical companies?!

pat left a comment on 20 Jul, 2008:

Luke: I guess I wasn’t thinking hard enough :)