'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?

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It's been taught for generations it is more blessed to give than to receive. But how blessed is it when you give in order to receive? As the holiday spirit takes over this time of year, charity abounds, but much of the giving is done with mixed motives. NPR's Tovia Smith has this look at what you might call selfish giving.

TOVIA SMITH: Walk through any shopping center these days, and you can see it everywhere. Starbucks is helping to fight AIDS in Africa. Macy's is giving to the Make A Wish Foundation, and Toys "R" Us is donating to Toys For Tots. It's clear, 'tis the season for giving, but it's also clear there is many a reason for giving.

Ms. CAROL CONE (Founder, Cone Incorporated): Companies engaged in social issues have gained tremendous benefits. It is absolutely magic.

SMITH: Consultant Carol Cone, considered the mother of cause marketing, says these days companies have to be seen as caring.

Ms. CONE: You have to be generous to be chosen and selected. Businesses must show their humanity. It's no longer a nice to do, it's a have to do.

SMITH: When you look at this kind of corporate giving, then, as what you have to do to be competitive, it's a little like high school kids signing up for their community service trip the summer before their college applications are due.

Sure, plenty of people are giving just for the joy of giving, but when givers are looking to sell more lattes or to enhance a resume, is it a win-win or is something else lost?

Professor RICHARD WEISSBOURD (Moral development, Harvard): I do feel like, as a country, we have lost a sense of morality for its own sake, you know, that you should just be generous to be generous. You should do what's right because it's right.

SMITH: Professor and psychologist Richard Weissbourd teaches about moral development at Harvard. He's troubled by what he sees is a growing trend of conspicuous compassion, where giving is the new black, and having 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.

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

SMITH: But how pure does giving have to be? What if you get a tax break or your name on a building? If there's something in it for you does that automatically diminish the gift? Is it a gift only if it cost you to give it?

Professor LAWRENCE BLUM (Philosophy, University of Massachusetts Boston): Yeah. That's, it's like a deep issue that philosophers have debated for thousands of years.

SMITH: University of Massachusetts Boston philosophy professor Lawrence Blum studies altruism. In the purest sense, he says, motive does matter. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is not really charity.

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

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

Mr. KEVIN McCALL (President and CEO, Paradigm Properties): 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.

SMITH: Kevin McCall is president and CEO of Paradigm Properties, a successful real estate development company in Boston and a big philanthropist.

Mr. McCALL: If the net benefit to society is positive, go for it.

SMITH: Just as there's nothing wrong with a teenager volunteering at church, knowing it's also a good way to meet girls, McCall says he gives his employees paid time off to volunteer knowing it's also good for his company.

Mr. McCALL: 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. That's great. I love that. You know, does it help us get business? It probably has helped us get business. There's no shame in that either.

Mr. JEFFREY SOLOMON (President, Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, author of "The Art of Giving: Where the Soul Meets a Business Plan"): The opportunity is to be honest about that, to recognize that, and to positively exploit that.

SMITH: That's Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Bronfman Philanthropies. In the best case, he 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.

Mr. SOLOMON: We live in a society where it's increasingly about me. You know, you ignore your market at your own peril.

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

It may be increasingly hard to fool both consumers and college admissions officials, but it's also true that those who start out giving for the wrong reasons are often changed by the experience and end up wanting to give more for the right ones.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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