The GiveWell Blog

What corporate social responsibility means to me

I find a huge disconnect between what others mean by “corporate social responsibility,” and how I think of it. Here are some of the things I don’t think are part of corporate social responsibility, pulled from a scan of (think CSR meets Digg):

People, not corporations, should give to charity. In fact, every penny that a for-profit corporation gives to charity is a penny that it could have given to its shareholders. Those are people, as capable of giving to charity as any other people. And they’re capable of giving using their own judgment and personal values, rather than being stuck with the charities that their CSR committee (most likely more concerned with marketing than with doing good) chooses. If you’re mad that charities are underfunded, yell at the shareholders, not the companies.

More broadly: a corporation is not a person. A person should contribute to society, spend time with his% family, take care of himself% first but also give to charity, etc. (You haven’t heard that you can now gender-neutralize any word by sticking % on the end? Well, I just invented it. Pass it on.) A corporation is a legal entity whose sole purpose is to provide particular goods or services. A person’s life should be well-balanced; a corporation exists to do one thing well.

If the world were a family, the businesses wouldn’t be the cousins and uncles; they’d be the chores assigned to different people on different days. You wouldn’t complain that taking out the laundry is wrong because it doesn’t involve petting the cat, even if petting the cat is a good thing to do. They’re just two different tasks that need doing.

That’s why I think of a socially responsible company, broadly, as a company that uses only what it pays for and charges only for what it provides. Business models built on under-regulated pollution, invasion of privacy, or other violation of property rights are irresponsible. Business models built on addiction, manipulative/deceptive marketing, or flat-out snake oil are irresponsible. And of course, there are some products that I simply feel that everyone (including the consumers) would be better off without, but my opinions on those are pretty personal. If a business can stay away from these dirty tricks and still turn a profit, that means it’s providing something that people are willing to pay for, enough to justify the cost of making it. For a legal entity, what more should you ask?


  • Great post. Thanks for checking out the site.

    Corporations are most definitely not people but all corporations are composed of people and should consequently be treated as such… otherwise, as you’ve mentioned, “dirty tricks” are standard business practice. A corporation is a legal entity driven by you and me… we’re not just customers, we’re also the business leaders who make decisions that effect people’s lives.

    What is not in question is that every corporation serves people and should be accountable to people accordingly.


  • Holden on June 4, 2007 at 12:10 pm said:

    Thanks for the response. As I think the end of my post makes clear, I’m not exactly super-sanguine about capitalism. I agree conceptually that there is a heck of a lot more to being valuable to society than making money. And so, I agree with the concept behind your website.

    But, I think the quality of analysis and dialogue on your website is very low. I don’t know how that can be changed, but I hope you are thinking about it. To throw up your hands and say “We gave people a forum, they say whatever they want, mission accomplished” would be irresponsible. Even if it results in a profit.

  • “there is a heck of a lot more to being valuable to society than making money”

    I whole heartedly agree. It reminds me of a paper or concept of Buddhist economics. This describes the economy for this culture as being the least materialist as possible. Often I wish more people would think, or at least give consideration, to this way way of thought.

  • Bonnie F on December 22, 2008 at 8:09 pm said:

    I value your opinion about corporations and charity. However what about the Ronald McDonald house. That is sponserd by a corporation? That is McDonald’s own charity. They started it. Without them what would we have? I know it is great that people give to the charity of their choosing but sometimes a corporation can spur people on by example.

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