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NY Times: The Sin in Doing Good Deeds

This was an op-ed that appeared in the NYT recently on an issue that is extremely close to me, and is routinely the foundation of endless debates, discussions, and arguments all over the net and in public. Its about whether you can be in the business of charity and good public works, or must you be a complete non-profit entity.

I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve argued with others about the new construction projects in Makkah, for example. One group of people is adamantly dead set against the construction of new high rise towers in the city, and yet they are unable to offer a solution for the critical demand for increased capacity in the next few years and decades. Here I stand in the other corner about practicality, feeling like I’m talking into the wind of emotions.

Another idea from a business colleague, which I cannot give details about because much of it is proprietary, involves a global campaign against poverty of unprecedented proportions. It’s scale and depth are stunning. It would make Bono’s campaigns look like child’s play. But its a business, and its goals could only be reached if it was being run as one, and not as a non-profit. And yet its been frequently derided and even pilloried as being characteristic of cold, capitalistic greed – EVEN THOUGH it has the ability to lift millions out of abject poverty and improve the quality of life for millions more.

Just what is it that makes people so mad about others who actually make a decent living out of helping the poor and the needy?


Op-Ed Columnist
The Sin in Doing Good Deeds

Published: December 24, 2008

Here’s a question for the holiday season: If a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed? Do we applaud or hiss?

A new book, “Uncharitable,” seethes with indignation at public expectations that charities be prudent, nonprofit and saintly. The author, Dan Pallotta, argues that those expectations make them less effective, and he has a point.

Mr. Pallotta’s frustration is intertwined with his own history as the inventor of fund-raisers like AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days — events that, he says, netted $305 million over nine years for unrestricted use by charities. In the aid world, that’s a breathtaking sum.

But Mr. 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 Mr. Pallotta began producing its own fund-raising walks, but the net sum raised by those walks for breast cancer research plummeted from $71 million to $11 million, he says.

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 labeled 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 like 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, 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.

Mr. Fairbanks himself demonstrates that a businessman can do good even as he does well. Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, hired Mr. Fairbanks’s consulting company and paid it millions of dollars between 2000 and 2007.

In turn, Mr. 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. President Kagame thanked Mr. 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 franchise 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. Mr. 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.”



Filed under: Current Affairs, Exhaust, Leadership

4 Responses

  1. M says:

    As Salam Alaikum

  2. DisplacedPersona says:

    I have to say, I don’t really agree with what the author’s proposing although I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t the foggiest when it comes to running a charity. But here’s a question: why does the executive or chief executive receive such a huge salary? If you want to pay your staff — fine, but couldn’t he do it for (dare I say it?) free? Or is that just silly talk?

    Oh, and I’m hoping the motley crew in maple land is doing well, inshaa’Allaah. If you have no idea what I’m talking about that’s fine; just sending salaams.

  3. maverick007 says:

    Are you asking why the chief exec *of the charity* receive such a huge salary? or of any regular for-profit business?

    People only do things for free when they have the financial capability to do so. You cannot expect anyone to devote their time to a task without compensation because after all, everyone has to pay the rent or mortgage, their bills, they have to put food on the table for others and for themselves, etc etc.

    Often people will work for free if they are fairly secure financially and if its [the charity or the work] something they’re very passionate about.

    But in many cases, money is a powerful motivator for quality. If a person knows that if they reach X milestone in quality or service levels, then they will get paid Y money, and if they reach 2X the milestone or service levels then they’ll get paid even more, then they will go that extra mile.

  4. DisplacedPersona says:

    I’m talking of the chief executive Dan Pallota’s salary in particular. I understand what you’re saying there about a wage but we’re talking an amount near $400, 000. That’s a ridiculous sum for anyone. He’d be able to sustain himself with far less and although it is a low amount for a man in his position, he is supposedly running ‘charitable events’. But then again, is business and profit his main aim and improving the lives of the poor an afterthought?

    I think the article does raise some good points when it comes to charity but I don’t believe that it should be run like a business in its entirety. I believe it should remain non-profit: pay your staff a good wage and whatever extra money is made, it ought to go back into the charity pot. Combine the ideas of both worlds.

    Just my thoughts.

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