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Getting Businesses to Do More

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, Opinion
May 4, 2004
p. 15A

Local businesses contribute a lot to our community. Are there innovative ways for them to do more?

My introduction to the joys and sorrows of small business, like that of many youngsters, came from delivering, and collecting for, newspapers. My healthy skepticism about big business began with experiencing candy companies doubling the price of nickel candy bars while simultaneously reducing their size. An experience with responsible Iowa City business was provided by a record storeowner who discouraged his young customer from "wasting money" on a popular song soon forgotten.

Business people are like every other segment of society. Many are among any community's most generous. Yet some executives of global corporations engage in cartels, multi-billion-dollar fraud or despicable human rights abuses.

In one sense, every business provides a community service, because it offers something the public is willing to pay for - from illegal goods to the services of caring professionals.

Yet distinctions can be drawn:

Some businesses are "doing well by doing good." Recycling firms -- whether paper, autos or bricks -- make profit, don't need taxpayer subsidies or philanthropy and save taxpayers the environmental and financial cost of landfills.

Specialty boutiques may benignly do neither good nor harm.

Tobacco companies' contributions to 450,000 deaths annually can be fairly considered negative.

Doing non-profits' work

Of course, equity and justice sometimes require governmental intervention. A civilized society ensures that everyone has access to food, shelter, health care and education, whether through distribution of cash (Social Security) or services (public schools, libraries, parks and transportation).

But if a competitive marketplace exists, it's a pretty good distribution system. If grocery stores don't divide up the territory to drive up prices, we may need agricultural subsidies and food stamps, but we don't need government-operated food stores.

For-profit and non-profit organizations have much in common. Both require business plans and marketing strategies, budgets and accounting, goals and management information systems. Idealistic non-profits ignore this at their peril.

If better management plus entrepreneurial imagination can achieve a non-profit's mission with a for-profit enterprise, why not?

Clearly, not every desirable institution can survive as a for-profit. Whether the Shakespeare Theater in City Park or hundreds of other examples, we are in the debt of generous benefactors and thousands of volunteers.

What is as intriguing as having for-profits doing non-profits' work is identifying innovative social contributions that are more than money and time.

Increased employee loyalty can make livable wages, safety, health care and day care a profitable win-win.

Most advertising simply says, "Give me your money." We have a dental clinic that buys television time to promote positive social messages. That's innovative, costs no more and successfully promotes the business.

There's a restaurant that assists local organizations by giving them not only a share of its revenue but a meeting place (and food that doesn't promote heart disease and obesity).

Optimum use of talent

Many business people volunteer to walk or flip pancakes to raise non-profits' money. That's great, but not optimum use of talent. A local Fortune 500 corporate executive, by contrast, volunteers not only time but also his high-powered education, experience and expertise to improving school board governance.

The same can be said for doctors in the free clinic, or lawyers offering pro bono services to individuals and organizations.

Only co-ops offer consumers voting by ballot. All businesses offer voting with dollars. Whether "social investing," boycotts or favoring "fair trade certified" coffee to prevent child labor, everyone can help shape the business climate.

What other business opportunities are there for the socially positive enterprise? What additional innovative ways to contribute more than money and time?

All our community's professionals, trades and business people make a social contribution just by going to work each day. But with a little more imagination, and not much more money and time, that contribution could really multiply.
Reach Nicholas Johnson, a University of Iowa College of Law professor, at