'Selfish' Giving: Does It Count If You Get In Return? This time of year, companies are raising money for charities — in part because they gain business for giving. But Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd says the country has "lost a sense of morality" around giving, and it sends a bad message to kids. Others say the net benefit to society outweighs morality.

'Selfish' Giving: Does It Count If You Get In Return?

'Selfish' Giving: Does It Count If You Get In Return?

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In time for the holidays, Starbucks launched its "Red" campaign to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. A portion of all sales are contributed to the Global Fund to Help Fight AIDS in Africa. Mark Von Holden/Getty Images hide caption

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Mark Von Holden/Getty Images

In time for the holidays, Starbucks launched its "Red" campaign to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. A portion of all sales are contributed to the Global Fund to Help Fight AIDS in Africa.

Mark Von Holden/Getty Images

It's been taught to generations that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." But how blessed is it when you give in order to receive?

This time of year, charity is everywhere: Starbucks is helping to fight AIDS in Africa. Macy's is giving to the Make A Wish Foundation. And Toys "R" Us is giving to Toys For Tots. Clearly, 'tis the season for giving — but it's also clear that there is many a reason for giving.

"Companies engaged in social issues have gained tremendous benefits," says Carol Cone, the chairwoman and founder of Cone Inc. who is considered by many to be the mother of cause marketing. "It's absolutely magic."

These days, she says, companies have to be seen as giving in order to succeed.

"Businesses must show their humanity," she says. "It's no longer a 'nice to do' — it's a 'have to do.' "

It's a little like high school kids signing up for their community service trip — the summer before their college applications are due. It's simply what they have to do to be competitive.

Experts call it "selfish giving" — when givers are looking to get back more than just the joy of giving. But where do you draw the line? When givers are giving in order to sell more lattes or enhance their resumes, is it a win-win — or is something else lost?

"I do feel like, as a country, we have lost a sense of morality for its own sake," says Harvard professor and psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who teaches about moral development. "You should just be generous to be generous. You should do what's right because it's right, not because of what you get back."

Motive Matters

Weissbourd is troubled by what he sees as a growing trend of "conspicuous compassion," where giving is the "new black," and a ribbon pin, a rubber bracelet or a family foundation is the new "must have" accessory. It brings social cachet to you, or cash to your company. Weissbourd says so much of that kind of giving sends a really bad message — especially to kids.

"I worry that that's what kids begin to think giving is — serving your needs and other peoples' needs. And they don't have an image in their head of another kind of giving: a tenacious, low-profile kind of altruism that's really just about the other person, and not about you," he says. "And I think we're in really deep trouble as a society if that sense of morality for its own sake evaporates."

But how pure does giving have to be? If there's anything in it for you — like a tax break or your name on a building — does that automatically diminish the gift?

"That's a deep issue that philosophers have debated for thousands of years," says University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Lawrence Blum, a specialist in the notion of altruism. In the purest sense, he says, motive does matter. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is not really charity.

"If it results in something positive, that's great," he says. "But that's just a different question from whether the person who is doing the giving is doing something that you admire or not."

A Focus On The Net Benefit

To others, however, such a purist view misses the point.

"This is not one of those places where you stand on principle, where you say, 'Oh! If it's not from the heart only, don't do it!' " says Kevin McCall, president and CEO of Paradigm Properties, a real estate development company in Boston that is involved in philanthropy and community service. "My attitude is, if the net benefit to society is positive, go for it!"

McCall founded Building Impact, a nonprofit sister organization to Paradigm that promotes community involvement, and his staff uses paid company time to run it, as well as to volunteer for outside organizations.

"There's a huge return in it for me," McCall says. "I get happier employees. My CFO feels great about doing the books for this cool nonprofit, and that makes him want to stay with us. We get all sorts of props around town for starting this cool nonprofit. That's great. I love that. Does it help us get business? It probably has helped us get business. There's no shame in that, either."

McCall says givers should expect a return on their investment. It's kind of like a teenager who volunteers at church and knows it's also a good way to meet girls.

"The opportunity is to be honest about that, to recognize that, and to positively exploit that," says Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies and author of The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan. In the best case, Solomon says, the reward for giving would be a nourished soul, rather than increased shoe sales. But if you want folks to give, he says, you have to show them what's in it for them.

"We live in a society where it's increasingly about 'me,'" he says. "You ignore your market at your own peril."

'Once They Do It, They Get Into It'

The real issue becomes not what givers are getting back, but how much they're actually giving. Is the company that is painting pink ribbons on rain boots really sharing the profit? Is the high school senior who is volunteering in Costa Rica really making a difference in the life of sea turtles?

"If you are a strict utilitarian on this and you only care about whether there is good produced on the ground from the gift, then it becomes very important to make sure that the benefit from the gift is a large and substantial one," says Robert Reich, associate professor of political science at Stanford University and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

It may be increasingly hard to fool both consumers and college admissions officers. But it's also true that what starts out as giving for the wrong reason may not end up that way.

Rory Morton, dean of students at Buckingham Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Mass., says he sees it with his students all the time.

"If I walk into the cafeteria and I say, 'Who wants to go do some community service?' they don't all necessarily jump for joy," he says. "But once they go do it, they get into it. And that's good enough for me."