Socially responsible thuggery

In his book Off the Books: the Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh describes the complicated role a street gang plays in the everyday life and economics of an impoverished Chicago neighborhood. Venkatesh explains that the gang at its core is a money making operation, and that violence is a negative externally, rather than an end in itself, of its capitalistic ambition.

The gang studied by Venkatesh has a more symbiotic relationship with the wider community than one might assume. For a community which is starved of outside investment the gang plays a dual role of public predator and social benefactor. The gang is active in local philanthropy, donating significant sums of money to non-profits who are otherwise left to raise funds from an impoverished donor base.

A gang that is active in donating to churches and Boys and Girls Clubs might seem perplexing, but I would argue it is no more jarring than the corporate double speak of British Petroleum’s engagement with several environmental organizations in the lead up to the worst oil spill in history. A piece in the Economist early last month rightly pointed out that “the scrutiny of these ties to BP is intensifying the perennial debate about how long a spoon NGOs should use when supping with corporate devils.”

The Economist goes on to quote Walter Massey, the chair of McDonald’s corporate social responsibility program, who

…has also been on the board of BP, which he believes benefited from its work with NGOs after a deadly accident at a refinery in Texas in 2002. “The company’s reservoir of goodwill, built up over years of committed corporate stewardship, was of critical aid in helping us to weather the storm,” he said in March. The latest crisis suggests that the reservoir is not bottomless, however.

Setting aside our prejudice against street gangs, on face, one might argue that although gangs terrorize the communities they are in, their philanthropic pursuits might exonerate them as socially responsible. Of course, a socially responsible street gang is oxymoronic, or perhaps just plainly moronic. While a gang might be responsible for propping up youth and anti-gang violence non-profit organizations in a poor area, it is the gang that creates the social harms the non-profits are intended to combat. It is the equivalent of a virus donating to a hospital, or Pepsi promoting healthy lifestyles.

Years ago the federal government cracked down on tobacco agencies incessant advertising of chronic smokers as fit, healthy people. The government was right to intercede. Carcinogens cause cancer. Excess amounts of sugar causes diabetes. And leaking oil in the ocean destroys eco-systems.

Whereas unethical corporations once worked solely with savvy marketing executives to manipulate public opinion regarding the harms their goods cause, today those same corporations turn to non-profit organizations who have their hands out and eyes closed, all too eager to blanket the sins of business thugs in the Trojan Horse of corporate social responsibility.

I am not arguing that non-profit organizations should not have relationships with corporations. However, we need to be clear headed about such partnerships, recognizing not only what is to be gained for our own organizations, but what the potential costs are, and where our corporate partners’ true ambitions lie. The short-term capital infusions of ill-conceived partnerships are not worth the longer-term harm to our sector’s reputation and the causes we care deeply about.

Like street gangs that use philanthropic donations to make communities reliant on their continuance and therefore tolerant of their deviance, corporate social responsibility, in the absence of actual responsibility, is nothing more than a cynical marketing gimmick better understood as socially responsible thuggery.