In Which I Cheat by Posting a Draft Memo for my Org Theory Class

New Forms without Being Inventive: From Personal Generosity to Charity Organizations to Responsible Businesses

Why is it that Wal-Mart can respond publicly to picketing employees by emphasizing its charitable giving? Why is it that McDonald’s sponsors youth athletic events and programs? Why is it that Romney advocates highlighted his record of personal generosity in response to accusations job-cutting business practices and lax tax proposals? In this paper, I review possible connections between personal generosity, charity organizations, and socially responsible businesses and I seek to demonstrate that while new forms of giving emerge, similar cognitive elements persist that occlude true novelty when it comes to acting charitably and redistributing wealth. I trace connections between acts of personal generosity, which are scaled-up through volunteer-based charity organizations that, in response to the retrenchment of welfare programs, became increasingly professional. Further, I suggest how businesses, in an effort to meet consumer demands for social responsibility, have begun to adopt similar practices. I note that as charitable practices diffuse through different forms with varying resources, they further legitimate and use a narrow concept of “doing good.” The more a schema for doing good is reinforced, the harder it is to break from it. This presents a challenge to creating inventive forms of wealth redistribution.

Regarding acts of personal generosity, Zelizer notes that charity workers have long sought to transform the moral world of the poor, and charity workers felt entitled to control not only the relief funds but also the spending of money earned by the poor. She goes on to note the long-standing tensions between giving money and giving in kind (Zelizer 1994). Similarly, the volunteers I studied at a mobile soup kitchen were driven by the experience of giving in person. They preferred “instant results” and being in direct contact with charity recipients (a specific form of what Andreoni, 1989 called “warm glow”). Their activities were largely driven by how they witness visible poverty in urban settings—it causes discomfort that they seek to assuage through in-person food charity. Though each volunteer could have done charity alone, they joined an organization because they felt it to be more efficient.

In the early 1980s, food charities like the one I studied grew in numbers, arguably in response to major cuts to welfare spending by the Reagan administration. Despite what was essentially a call by government for private action to supplant government action, charities persisted with the familiar practices that emphasized giving in person. With the continued assault on government welfare programs, new forms of charity organizations emerged taking on more bureaucratic structures and becoming more professional. Such forms adopted a combination of small-scale individualistic charitable efforts with large-scale bureaucratic forms. We can see this in one of the largest food charity organizations, Feeding America, that receives substantial corporate support from Cargill, ConAgra, General Mills, Morgan Stanley, Pepsi, Wal-Mart and others[1]. Despite an impressive pool of resources, charitable activity still takes place on an individualistic level. Feeding America does what the name implies: it offers a network of food banks, pantries, soup kitchens, and does some advocacy work on the issue of hunger. What we see here then is new in some ways, like widespread professionalism and corporate funding, and old in others, like the way the act of charity is defined and acted on.

While personal generosity and loosely organized charity groups still exist, I imagine the emergence of the highly professionalized charity to look like the multiplanar network diagrams portrayed in Padgett and Powell’s book. On one level, there’s the individual embedded among charity volunteers, on another level he’s embedded among a business organization, and on another level he’s embedded in political factions. Perhaps then the professionalization aspects are transposed from the business realm, and the broader purpose is transposed from the political realm, but the tactic of personal generosity persists. It is as if the resources and purpose of the business and political spheres are brought to bear on the personal sphere—as if the man handing his leftovers to a mendicant on the street wishes he had a van full of food to hand out to everyone on the street, or a fleet of vans to hand out food to everyone in the city. So, even as resources and organizational forms change, the old tactic persists.

This may suggest a sort of cognitive inertia that maintains though organizational forms may shift. That is, the ways that an issue of poverty or homelessness is conceived of—as issues to be responded to with personal generosity, personal control, and transfer of goods in-kind—maintains. So even while the forms of charity might shift, I’d hypothesize the underlying drives maintain. This is because that even though the forms of charity may change, the conception of charity and charitable practices are picked up from the known forms and transposed into new forms. Through this the practices are reified and legitimated making it harder for future forms to be truly novel.

What would be novel? For one, that major corporations like Wal-Mart—with its poor record of compensating and caring for its employees—would opt to give through Feeding America is, from the standpoint of technical efficiency in wealth redistribution, somewhat astonishing. If it sought to actually better the wellbeing of people in the US, it might be better served to reshape its own approach to labor. So perhaps a novel form of charity wouldn’t look like charity at all. It may look like self-imposed taxation and wealth redistribution among firms responsible for skewed income distributions. But as long as the personal generosity paradigm is legitimated and goes unquestioned by the masses, we can expect Wal-Mart to give to a food charity while it ironically maintains practices that lead many of its employees to rely on government or private redistribution, like Feeding America, to make ends meet.

What might cause a profound change in these practices might come via regulation. Switzerland, for example, recently debated (and shot down) a law that would cap executive pay at 12 times the income of lowest paid employees. Though I’m not holding out for such a law existing in the US, it’s fun to imagine how organizations might react if it did. Perhaps we’d see something analogous to the responses to regulation change documented by Kellogg. She argues that, for opposition to be fostered, reforming agents need relational space where they are shielded from the agents of social control. Are such free spaces fostered even in the absence of regulation? This seems possible. Borrowing language from organizational ecology, perhaps some organizations carve out niches for themselves through corporate social responsibility, certification as B-Corps (who can claim to be “certified ethical”), or even through association with independent philanthropic foundations. Arguably, we can see these new forms as emerging from the simultaneous pressures of capitalism and social responsibility—historically odd bedfellows. For a socially responsible business, the notion of the “triple bottom line” captures the goal succinctly. In this sense then, it may not require regulation for these new relational practices to emerge, but any external influence on which an organization or institution is dependent.

Perhaps I’m too cynical to think that these new forms of social responsibility grow out of genuine concern for the wellbeing of the less well off in society. Surely some of them originate from this (perhaps the robber barons turned philantrhopists had a sort of Ebenezer Scrooge moment), but my guess is that, for most businesses, socially responsible outgrowths are the product of social pressures—awareness-raising activism’s effect on consumer demands—and thus are designed to do enough to placate the majority of consumers. Viewing Wal-Mart this way, we can see how UCFW and SEIU manage to paint the retail giant in a negative light to which it must respond. If Wal-Mart can publicize its charity work, perhaps it can meet the average consumer’s schema for “not a bad company.” Again borrowing from organizational ecology, it’s possible consumer tastes for ethics are analogous to consumer tastes for beer (Carroll and Swaminathan 2000). The big players can focus on meeting the majority demand and capture some more of the market through gestures of charity; the smaller players may have to play up their ethical or selfless qualities more to establish contrast.  The reason Wal-Mart can be successful doing this is that it can play off of a widely held concept of “doing good” that is regularly legitimated by individuals, charities and businesses. In this way, seeing a major corporation take a stab at charitable behavior is less a new form (business + social responsibility = socially responsible business) and more of a calculated new aesthetic to maintain fit within a field.

When it comes to how certain charitable practices diffuse among organizations, Wang and Soule’s work on tactical diffusion among SMOs is worth noting. It is easy to imagine how charitable tactics may diffuse at the individual level (e.g. I see a friend handing out food to homeless and sharing a similar interest to help I do the same) and on the charity organization level (among collaborating organizations one may have a mobile soup kitchen, another may have a food pantry—maybe one or both will adopt the other’s approach). On the responsible business level, the tactics may diffuse differently. Though we see collaboration in funding among firms supporting Feeding America (and some charitable tactics may diffuse through this nexus) I imagine that charitable tactics at this level diffuse more in line with legitimacy and conformity to consumer demands and status quo in the organizational field. If the goal of the activity is to placate demand for responsible business, diffusion is likely to occur along the lines of this demand. Thus, in response to Wang and Soule’s article, the reasons for adopting the tactic may play an important role in determining what spreads.

What sets the status quo of socially responsible business within the organizational field may have something to do with what Briscoe and Safford called the Nixon-in-China effect. If a major firm with a change resistant identity such as Wal-Mart begins picking up charitable practices, this may lead other organizations relative to Wal-Mart to follow suit. Of course, charity is not the contentious practice of domestic partner benefits Briscoe and Safford describe. Instead it enjoys widespread cultural acceptance. This widespread regard for charity notwithstanding, that charity becomes a role of business firms is not inevitable. So when a business firm with high network centrality picks up charity, perhaps in response to PR demands, other organizations that use the central organization as a reference point may be inclined to do the same. What Briscoe and Safford lay out is a sort of mechanism for mimetic isomorphism showing that certain firms and their characterization as adoption-prone/resistant affects weather or not other firms will mimic them. If a church does charitable activities, few food processing companies will feel pressure to do the same. But if Cargill does charity, it’s as if Nixon went to China.

Meyer and Rowan’s concept of myth and ceremony might appropriately serve to describe for-profit firms adopting charitable practices. Charity has the qualities of myth and ceremony. It provides charitable persons and organizations with claims to positive social contribution. It legitimizes organizational activity that may not otherwise be palatable to the socially conscious. We see new organizational forms and new organizational practices with little connection to organizational missions emerge and diffuse—most interestingly with only meager public scrutiny. Why is this? I believe one reason for this is that the new forms and practices have successfully co-opted (intentionally or not) the individual-level concept of “doing good” –something I believe to be centered on feelings of personal generosity. Furthermore, the more these concepts of “doing good” are reinforced by new organizations and organizational practices legitimating them in the public consciousness, the harder it will be to break from it. This presents a challenge to the creation of inventive forms of wealth redistribution. Thus, if more effective forms of charity (or charitable behavior broadly defined) are to grow, it appears a reconceptualization of “charity”—moving beyond its taken for granted myth an ceremony—must take place.

The difficulty of this challenge seems to affirm Padgett and Powell’s autocatalytic definition of emergence and diffusion, that from the chemical perspective, life itself can be defined as an interacting ensemble of chemicals that reproduces itself.  Applied here, there is a sort of cognitive inertia about the way charitable behavior is defined that leads certain charitable activities to be reproduced. We can see that, at each level of providing food charity—individual, charity organization, business—the concept of food charity goes unquestioned and is seen as a suitable supplement to government provided food programs (e.g. SNAP[2]). The truly novel thing for someone interested in making sure no one is hungry might be to forgo the obvious “give people food” approach and take up a “give people a means to get their own food.” That organizations with the resources to make this reality possible still opt to utilize the tactics of personal generosity suggests the strong grip of the narrow concept of food charity, the fact that charitable interests are a product of how they diffuse, and/or the difficulty of instituting novel concepts and practices. Therefore, we see that though charity may take on new organizational forms and practices, a narrow concept of charity maintains.






[1] According to Feeding America, donations from each of these organizations are over $10 million each (over period from 2007-2012) or 100 million or more pounds of food.

[2] Government welfare programs have their own interactions with issues of control and personal generosity and some, such as SNAP, are more politically sellable because they deals in food and not money. Amazingly this is not enough to satisfy some factions, as the highlighting of rare cases of the program’s abuse by a few recipients has been sufficient to dismantle it. But this underscores the intensity of the motives Zelizer points out.


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