The Return on Investment of Doing the Right Thing

When you take the big leap to go into business for yourself as I did four years ago, you hear a lot about ROI– return on investment. Wikipedia defines this most capitalist of terms as “the ratio of money gained or lost (whether realized or unrealized) on an investment relative to the amount of money invested.”

That’s all very reasonable and rational, but I seriously wonder if we’ve hurt our culture — and a heck of a lot of people — by only defining ROI in terms of money. I just got a copy of Ruth Grant’s new book In Search of Goodness, and I was struck by her discussion of  the uneasiness that pervades our culture these days:

There is the general sense that, in the drive for success and personal fulfillment, modern Western culture has paid too little attention to cultivating, educating, or cherishing goodness. Some take the financial crisis as evidence of that failure.

Count me among the “some” who see the financial crisis as evidence of our moral failings. In particular, we’ve created a cultural ethos where the highest good is to make the most money. Success is measured by profit, not by how much good you create in the world.

All of this is why I was so taken by the NPR report about Tim Schottman, the senior vice president for global programs at SightLife, a foundation that helps people  get corneal transplants. Around the world, about 10 million people suffer from corneal blindness. NPR quotes the former Starbucks executive about what the SightLife staff get in return for all their hard work.

“We talk a lot about return on investment, but not in terms of financial return but in terms of social return,” he says. “This is how many people will have their sight restored.”

There’s not a single penny returned to SightLife, yet the return is huge. It’s huge in the staff’s personal sense of fulfillment, but the ROI of SightLife’s efforts is also significant for you and me and everyone else in the world.  Quality of life increases sharply for the people who can see again and for their families. Their societies now have a better chance of prospering because these folks, who most often live in the developing world, have more opportunities to prosper. The happiness quotient rises. Political stability is more likely. Anger is reduced.

What would it mean for the human race if we all began to see ROI in terms of people, and not money? What if all the effort we put into accumulating piles of cash and ever bigger things was diverted into helping the maximum number of people?

I’m just asking.

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2 Responses to The Return on Investment of Doing the Right Thing

  1. Linda Herzberg says:

    I find your last paragraph interesting in light of the Lakota beliefs. When growing up I was taught that family was very important. However, family was not the nuclear family that most Americans think of, family was tiyosapaye. Tiyosapaye is more like community; in olden days it referred to the people who lived and traveled together. In the main stream society, when there is a celebration such as a birth, graduation or some other kind of honoring presents are given to the honoree. In the Lakota tradition, when there is an honor such as being named head man or lady at a Pow Wow, graduating from college, or a name giving ceremony, the honoree does not receive presents. Instead the family makes a feast and gives presents to the people who come. The people who come are not just the ones the family invites, it is anyone from the community. This is not an RSVP where you tell the family how many will come. The family expects you to bring anyone you want and to bring anyone who is visiting you. The family will provide food for everyone who comes an will prepare food for you to take home, especially if there was someone who could not come. All the food is given away and none is left for the family. Everyone who comes receives a gift, and the gifts are all given away. If there are more gifts than people then they give the gifts out until they are gone. The family knows that all the people there will eventually be having giveaways and they will be on the receiving end. It gives new meaning to “cast your bread upon the waters”.

    In the traditional Lakota way, if you have more than you need you are considered a hoarder. A chief, medicine man or medicine woman was to take care of others and often had less that others, unlike people of power in the mainstream society. A hunter who had success, shared his food with others who did not.

    We were family to all creation, including animals, plants, rocks, earth and stars. It is a value of the Lakota to be humble. When we prayed, we asked for intervention because we were family and there is an owed responsibility to family, even from God.

  2. This is a serious issue, and one that needs to be addressed, because our current return on investment thinking is very short term. One of the things that keeps corporations from doing things because they’re the right thing to do is the legal requirement that they always do things in the best interest of their shareholders return on investment. That leads to a lot of short term profit thinking. Not only can it damage the environment, for example, but it can bring the corporation down in the long term.

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