If companies didn’t exploit resources in the first place then they wouldn’t feel they needed to give something back, argues Peter Knight

With great precision, the boy set about beheading every rose in the bed. His stick flicked and flayed as he systematically destroyed beautiful public property. When asked to stop, he said: “They’re not yours, so eff off!”

It happened in London where part of the political debate is about the “big society”. In the big society, government takes a much smaller role in local life and citizens are encouraged to provide services by volunteering their time and talents for the benefit of their communities.

London’s community open spaces (as opposed to the formal parks) are tended by local government. In New York City there is a strong chance that residents will gather on a spring morning to tend the flower beds that huddle under trees on the sidewalk. The city looks after bigger spaces, helped by local volunteers.

Of course, greater community involvement does not necessarily lead to a better community spirit. The fact that your neighbour might have planted the petunias does not prevent you from letting your dog to pee on them. That is why many small flower beds display notices preaching the evils of urine and the need for community responsibility.

Living in New York – a foreign country compared with most of the US – it is difficult to have an informed view of the bigness of the US society, compared with Britain’s. Certainly the US reputation is of greater community volunteering because many services provided by local government in Europe are not available in the US. In New York, for example, the city government sweeps the streets with a great big machine. But it is the building owner’s responsibility to keep the sidewalk clean of litter, snow and ice.

Some community recreation facilities, such as boathouses, are run entirely by volunteers, and there are networks of individuals who visit the elderly or walk their dogs.

Such activities are coordinated by groups that are funded through a combination of grants from individuals, foundations and the public purse. The latter is under intense pressure after the recession and there is a formal call from America’s most rich (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) for the wealthy and business to increase giving.

Smaller government, greater philanthropy?

The Gates/Buffett campaign reflects the broader public sentiment, popularised by the Tea Party, to return to smaller government. The US tax system, after all, provides much greater encouragement for individual and corporate philanthropy than that available in big-government Europe.

Some commentators interpret the call for business to give more as a failure of corporate responsibility, or as they see it, not giving enough back. For me the criticism displays a lack of understanding about the responsibilities of business.

Corporate responsibility is about how you do business. It is about integrity and ethics, rather than choosing to give away shareholders’ money.

We should instead be talking about the failure of corporate philanthropy and its inability to finance those services not provided by small government. There is indeed a crisis in corporate giving; not only the quantity but also its targeting. This is partly due to the rise of “strategic philanthropy”, which means ignoring the broader needs of society and giving to causes that directly benefit your business.

Strategic philanthropy – a form of marketing – makes perfect business sense, but it is a community nonsense. Unglamorous causes (the feeble, the crazies) are ignored in favour of those activities that can benefit the brand.

Witness the great giving to children’s playgrounds by the fizzy drinks industry desperate to show that it encourages physical activity. Corporate philanthropists increasingly attached restrictions to their largesse, insisting that it should be “results driven” and not used for administration. Applying strict commercial controls is laudable, but someone has to pay for the paper clips.

If ever there was an argument for true corporate responsibility – how you do business – it is about the role that business plays in setting an example to others in the big society. The public will never stop slashing the roses or letting their pets pee on the petunias if business does nothing to rid itself of its buccaneering, bonus-fuelled reputation for irresponsibility.

In the unlikely event that business should become truly responsible, we would then also be able to rid ourselves of that terrible term: giving back. There is nothing to give back if you don’t snatch it in the first place.

Peter Knight is president of Context America.

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