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.