A Fickle Relationship

Jake and I saw startup.com last week. The movie follows the conception, rise and fall of an internet startup. Govworks is the name of the firm that the documentary follows. At one point in the movie, the main character, the CEO of the company, mentions how their idea is for the good of the people. How the reason they exist is to help people. It’s not his exact words, it might not even be the exact logic behind his words, but the words made me wonder about the plausibility of for-profit companies that exist for the good of humanity. All these words just to ask:

Is it possible for a profit company to have the public’s interest at heart?

The idea behind serving the public interest is finding an area where there is a need for help. Building houses. Teaching in inner-city schools. Providing service for the deaf. Giving shelter to the needy. Running a soup kitchen. The idea is to try to make the world a better place. The idea is to wake up each morning and be able to look yourself in the mirror. Working for the public interest is an unselfish act.

A for-profit company’s ultimate goal is to make money. Regardless of the specific purpose and details of the company, a for-profit is inherently trying to accumulate profit. The profits are not to be donated to the public. In most cases, they are so that the company can do well in an IPO. And then they are so that the company’s shares stay high. And then they are so the partners can be wealthy. Making money for oneself is a selfish act. Not selfish in the ‘you’re such a selfish pig’ sense but in the ‘you’re putting yourself first’ sense.

Can the selfish world of for profit companies mesh with the non-selfish cause of doing good for the public? It seems to me that a for-profit firm, when push comes to shove, would have to do what’s right for the business. Take the alternative that might bring in more money. Even at the cost of forgoing human interest. Which makes me think that for-profit and human interest cannot go together.

Initially, when I thought about companies working for human interest, I could only think of non-profit agencies or organizations. Then I started thinking of professions. Doctors. Teachers. Government workers. Both doctors and teachers have a wide range. There are doctors that charge an arm and a leg. There are private tutors who do the same. And yet, many doctors and teachers make so little that tons of people choose not to go into the profession for that very reason. The question of whether teachers should get paid a lot is an involved one and deserves another entry for another day.

It’s been a few days and at the back of my mind, I’m still pondering whether the coupling of working for human interest and running a for-profit firm is one of lifelong happiness or one bound to result in divorce.

Any ideas?

Previously? Obligations.

7 comments to A Fickle Relationship

  • Doing good for the public is not always a self-less act. Not to be too cynical, but there are politicians who do it every day and often for purely selfish reasons. In fact, on NPR last week they were talking about a for-profit company that plants trees to reduce pollution levels in the UK. They partener with corporations (and individuals, but their focus is corporations). These corporations will pay this company (the name escapes me, but I will do my best to find out) to plant trees in the hopes of reducing air pollution. Some of the coporations do this with no other reason, others use it as a public relations or advertising opportunity to show the public that they care. This last way of advertising their caring environmental ways seems pretty selfish, but in the end it does do some good for humanity. And I’m sure that this tree planting company is not the only company out there in the world that does good things and makes money. In the interview with the head of the tree planting company, he simply wanted to make a fair living wage from doing something he thinks is great for society — so it goes to show you that not all corporations (although many give the corporate world a horrible name) are out there just to get rich. The ying and the yang still keep each other in balance, even in the western world. 🙂

  • karenika

    mark, sorrie i didn’t reply sooner, i was out all day. my company does a lot of coimmunity service, too. most likely for tax purposes, and regardless of their motives, I understand that it’s a good thing. and i also know that non-profit companies cannot really exist without the profit companies or wealthy individuals and their money. i still am not sure tho, that the two can be one company. it seems to be that the inherent motives are clashing. did the tree planting company make a lot of money? or did they couple with profit companies just to plant trees?

  • tom

    It’s such a fine line to draw. If you take things to an extreme the only honest buck to be made is that which is earned from making something (or writing something, painting something, etc.) from scratch and selling it yourself. Of course, word of mouth only travels so far, so the marketing or advertising agency creeps in and pretty soon everyone is scrambling for a piece of the pie.

    The tree planter, for instance, probably advertises somewhere. This involves a magazine or newspaper with other profit oriented individuals that are doing it for the good of the public.

    Teachers (bless their souls) would be a good example of doing something good for profit except that they really aren’t. When you tally up their hours after class is out (grading papers, etc.) and take a look at their pay, they might as well be volunteers. They don’t seem to be profiting, rather subsisting on what meager pay they receive (in public schools anyway). Pay that probably doesn’t even stay at pace with inflation.

    The true heroes are those that volunteer, give selflessly, for no pay whatsoever, just to make the world a better place. People like our genial host, Karenika. Hooray for volunteers!

  • tom

    (where’s the edit button?) The last line of paragraph two of my post above should read “aren’t doing it for the good of the public.”

  • Can the selfish world of for profit companies mesh with the non-selfish cause of doing good for the public?

    This brings up the lofty question: is it ok to profit from doing good?

    Sure, we profit all the time in non-monetary ways with volunteer work and such, but Western society seems to say that people must feel bad if they profit with money from “good works” or that somehow their good works are tainted if they benefit by receiving even the smallest amount of wealth. I think this is the micro version (individual profit for good works) of the macro scenerio (for-profit corporations doing good things for the public interest).

    I don’t have an answer at the moment — will have to give it thought. But anyone else have opinions formed on the subject?

  • Quoting karenika from above:
    did the tree planting company make a lot of money? or did they couple with profit companies just to plant trees?

    The tree company (from the NPR segment) seemed to be doing quite well. They received a protion of their revenue from average people like you and me sending them money (A theme they advertised to people: "Plant one tree and it offsets the pollution you create for one year by commuting to work!&quot). I do think that much of their income was created by partnering with private corporations, some of whom did work with them as part of their public goodwill publicity.

  • Currency is an essential part of our society. Yes, you need food, clothes and shelter to survive, but the all-mighty dollar (or your currency of choice) is the means to get those essentials for survival. So the bottomline is that every person, regardless of who they are or what they do have a need for money in order to meet their basic needs.

    Whether an entity is for-profit or not-for-profit, it ultimately needs to be run as a business if there is any hope of it surviving in the long run. For profit companies do provide for the betterment of society as well, but they do that only when the goals are aligned — if they can improve the state of humanity, by providing their widget, and make money, which is necessary for for all the people who work in that company, then they are serving their role in the cycle of things.

    For-profit companies provide employment to and a means to live to millions of people, that too is in the favor of human interest.

    I’m a proud capitalist and a believe in the free market economy and I also believe in doing good for others and definitely by no means causing harm to others. We all have a choice and if the masses believe that a for-profit enterprise is acting against human interest, they have a choice to boycott it and in essence lead to it’s demise.

    Nature is at work and it works in strange ways.

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