Does Doing Good and Getting Paid For It Leave You Feeling Unethical?

I was reminded tonight of how new the idea of social enterprise really is. Maybe not for you, but take a step back. Not only do some investors or consumers question it, but so do some of us. I just got off the phone with a change agent who is trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together to launch a cause-driven, for-profit business. I’m sharing his story because his uncertainty about earning a living from doing good surprised me.

He’s run his own company for 10 years and he’s a compassionate musician who’s developed an interest in using music and art to fundraise for causes and individuals. He’s put on several Toys for Tots concerts, a concert for a single mother who’s house burned down a week after she lost her autistic child, and is currently working with his city’s Haitian community to organize a benefit for Partners in Health. We spoke because he’s trying to figure out how to build an organization that connects causes with volunteers, artists and activists. Here’s how my mind processes this: The man is hard-working, capable, action-oriented and deeply caring. He can create change by bringing people together in new ways.

His most looming question, which he’s been wrestling with is whether it is “ethical” for him to make money from an organization that helps people. He brought up the backlash on Wyclef Jean’s Yele nonprofit (Wyclef’s culpable in my mind) and dissidents that feel Bono uses social projects to sell more CDs and concert tickets (so what? Look at the good he has done).

Here’s what I said after I got over my surprise. It’s clear that his actions come from a place of sincerity and passion to help. It’s not unethical to make a profit from an activity that benefits people. Isn’t that the way it should be? Shouldn’t we be sustained and rewarded for the good we create? Before tonight I thought that the best social enterprises are created from sincere passion and an awareness of serving different groups’ needs (including our own needs). I would add now that more familiarity with the idea of social enterprise is needed–by investors, by consumers and even by us.

What do you think? Is there a thin red line? What’s the best indicator of a social enterprise?

Photo credit: Martin Clark’s book, The Social Entrepreneur Revolution.

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  1. Megan Strand March 5, 2010 at 4:00 pm #

    Oooohhhh…great post! And ain’t that the rub of all things cause-related? That sentiment of “if we’re doing good, being profitable doesn’t have a place”.

    In my opinion, this is why so many organizations that ARE doing good things don’t promote it well or communicate about it at all in a public forum…because they’re not in it for self-promotion. But just because money isn’t you’re motivating factor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid for your contribution.

    Two quick thoughts on this:

    1) If you truly care about a cause, shout out loud and proud about your work. Why? Because it’s contagious. Want your movement to spread? Sometimes it takes that capitalistic nudge to get people moving. If it’s all free, all the time, you’ll find people are less vested. Simon Sinek had a great quote that went something like this, “Ideas should be free. It’s OK to charge for the implementation of ideas.” If you don’t value your time, why should others?

    2) Seth Godin also has an interesting take on this – I believe it appeared in a blog post recently. He says of course you should be paid for your time and your work. Those that thrive and succeed are the ones that are successful in adding additional value above and beyond expectations without charging extra.

    Thanks for starting the conversation!

  2. admin March 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    great points here. I believe companies need to share what they’re doing as well (because, as you said, it’s contagious, builds momentum for more good and sets a standard). I liked Seth’s post as well. There’s an interesting shift/discussion going on now about free vs. paid content. I think we went so far in the direction of free everything online that people are trying to pull back and obtain some value from their work. It’s a balance, for sure. It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.

    I heard from a social entrepreneur who wrote to me directly that his moral compass has been questioned because he is combining profit with doing good. He said it really shakes him, as I can imagine. More conversations like these are in order.

  3. Rachel March 8, 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    I am a social entrepreneur working in Africa and I promise you, sooner rather than later the money runs out. I have lofty goals to help feed people but also plan to make money doing it. In the meantime, I work as a consultant often times for other organizations who do “good” as well. I’m not saying to be greedy so if you have some pangs of guilt be equitable and if you can donate a little extra then do it. I have been very lucky to have some amazing people donate their professional time to me so I still try to do the same for others here in Africa. But at the end of the day, we all need to pay rent and eat. I truly believe you don’t know that you what it means to be a real social entrepreneur until you start counting squares of toilet paper!

  4. admin March 8, 2010 at 1:51 pm #

    Rachel, your work looks so interesting (!

    If we don’t aim to create self-sustaining organizations (and that includes some money to sustain ourselves, the entrepreneurs) then we do a disservice to our vision and the people we’re working to help. Capitalism (being paid in exchange for an action, product) is a powerful system and do-gooders should not shy away from using it.

    Thanks for your comments. Toilet paper squares? Interesting!