14 August 2006

BAH Charity? Humbug!

A friend (who has requested anonymity for reasons that will become obvious) recently wrote to tell me about the annual corporate charity drive on behalf of United Way (anonymity means that it might be Canada, or it might be U.S.). I remember these circuses from when I was in corporate life – each company, and sometimes each division, would have a “captain” whose responsibility it would be to muster the troops, so to speak, to Give! Give! Give! There were events, posters, memos, announcements, recognition dinners. My friend – who recently joined this organization – shared a memo from the executive vice-president of the company that “encourages” management employees above a certain level to donate $1,000 each to United Way through the company’s campaign. A bit of digging uncovered the dirty little secret that donations are indeed monitored centrally, and not responding appropriately to the encouragement is a serious career-limiting move.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against United Way. It supports thousands of individual local charities and agencies that do tremendous work throughout North America. There are, however, some people who – for various reasons – choose not to support United Way. Some are against United Way’s support of Planned Parenthood, for example; others choose to direct their charitable giving towards organizations that are not part of the United Way system. Although the corporate donation program is very successful for United Way and its member agencies, I have to ask what business is it of an employer to direct the charitable donations of its employees? After all, isn’t charity a matter between a person and her/his conscience?

I see this (en)forced corporate charity drive as quintessentially characteristic of the BAH (Bureaucratic, Administratively controlled, Hierarchical) organization. Such organizations are mission and vision-controlled and would “see” corporate social responsibility and contributing to the local community as part of their objectives or goals. Have a look at the guiding principles document or CSR report from any major (and many minor) corporation – it will undoubtedly be there. The way to demonstrate such corporate social responsibility and good citizenship is, naturally, according to the quantifiable objectives on which BAH organizations thrive – in other words, show results. And the way to show results is to administratively enforce charity by using bureaucratic mechanisms and hierarchical “encouragements.”

When read according to Valence Theory, however, the effects are not exactly what might be desired. Charity (and volunteerism) works primarily along the Socio-Psychological valence. Simply put, giving makes you feel good. It increases your SP relationship with others, and that would tend to increase SP in your general environment of immediate, secondary and tertiary connections. But, coerce a person into giving – especially by threatening her/his career – and the SP effect is exactly the opposite (as anecdotally reported by my friend among a number of people in their company). Mandatory charity (like non-voluntary volunteerism) makes people cynical, mean-spirited and resentful, generally decreasing the SP vibe in the environment. (And what about those charities that are now effectively being corporately “robbed” by these latter day Robin Hoods? But that’s another conversation.)

What is fascinating to me is this: When considered according to a BAH conception of organization, the company can claim full participation and over-the-top aggregate donations to the United Way. They can proudly write in their annual CSR report that they are indeed good corporate citizens. It’s a good thing! When considered according to the relationship-oriented Valence Theory of organizations, coercion like that in my friend’s company creates exactly the opposite effect that charity is intended to create, engendering cynicism, resentment, and alienation among many who would otherwise be heartened by doing good works. This ultimately contributes to the erosion of the sense of community that United Way intends to build. The BAH organization aligns espoused and in-use theories; they completely ignore effective theory.

Reversal’s a bitch, ain’t it?

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