Stengel: Ideals and Purpose

There’s an interesting review of Jim Stengel’s 2011 book  ‘Grow: How Your Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the 50 greatest Companies’  from Zoe Ostberg of GoodBrand this month.

Zoe notes that the inspiring argument for self-actualisation, the core purpose of doing business,  is followed by an appendix  of 50 less than inspiring ideals statements from leading companies.

So here’s the perspective of  a business which launched in 2004, describing their approach as ‘profit for purpose’  which soon after became a topic of conversation on the Skoll Social Edge forum.  One of the participants is Sutia Kim Alter whose  ‘Social  Enterprise Typology‘ was used to describe various components of a work then in progress.

It was in 1996 that founder Terry Hallman, in his white paper on People-Centered Economic Development raised the question of purpose in the opening paragraph:

“At first glance, it might seem redundant to emphasize people as the central focus of economics. After all, isn’t the purpose of economics, as well as business, people? Aren’t people automatically the central focus of business and economic activities? Yes and no.”

It goes on ton challenge the assumption of  shareholder primacy, suggesting a business which instead of distributing profit to shareholders, makes its entire purpose  one which is social, stating the fundamental predicate that “no person is disposable”  It  is in the core argument, now a manifesto that this was reasoned, pointing out that ‘dismissing people and consciously leaving them to die, is probably not the way to go’

The paper presents an argument,  about who should be considered disposable:

“Maybe we come to an agreement that it shouldn’t be either you or me, or our families and friends, that can be disposed of, but perhaps someone else. While we are debating this — passionately and sincerely, no doubt — a third party comes along and without warning disposes of the both of us, or our families, or our friends. And there is the trap we have fallen into, because whether or not we approve of our or our families’ and friends’ demise is irrelevant. It is fair because we accepted the principle of human disposability.”

Over the next decade,  these concepts will be deployed in  initiatives to tackle poverty  which start in Russia and arrive in the UK in 2004.  I describe this for the HBR / McKinsey  MIX initiative in ‘Changing Capitalism for People and Planet’.

From 2004, focus is almost exclusively on Ukraine, where Terry Hallman advocates for those considered disposable, children institutionalised because of their disabilities,  in  ‘Every Child Deserves a Loving Family’

It’s a story which ends with his death in poverty and raises many questions of ethics in media and government organisations.

In 2011 Deloitte launched an initiative to find the UK’s most innovative social businesses and my application was quickly dismissed.  I understand why.

In 2010 Erste Bank were conducting a symposium on social business in Budapest.  The theme was familiar to us – ‘What if the economy benefited  people and not people the economy?’  it asked, soliciting ideas for social business and so I sent ours. It had been  published online in 2007 when we believed the IP to be at risk   Part one focussed on childcare reform, microfinance and affordable internet, part two was for a centre of social  enterprise development.

Erste responded with some enthusiasm, saying:

“Thank you very much for contacting us concerning Your microfinance inintiative in Tomsk – could you provide us with more information on the activies you are pursuing in Ukraine and Russia currently?

As we are closely cooperating with Grameen Creative Lab currently on the so called Social Business Tour, and as I could understand from your mail you have already tried to be in contact with GCL, I think that we could potentially help you, if we would know what you want is your proposal?

Could you provide us with a summary of your activities and plans where you see our added value?

My very best regards,
Jan “

Jan Kouba
Erste Group Bank AG

So I did. The following year our work was not featured among their awards, but we discovered thanks to Martin Murphy, a man of rare integrity in the social enterprise world, that the British Council, USAID and Erste Bank, all of whom had been introduced to out work, were partnering on a social enterprise development initiative in Ukraine.  It includes a link to an article written by a UK ‘expert’ , in Ukrainian language, as if to underline dishonesty.

One presumes, they had agreed among themselves that we and the children already considered disposable could be brushed out of the way.

Now it can hardly be said that nobody knew of our work because the FCO had acknowledged it in 2008.  Social Enterprise magazine knew from our reports for the SE 100 index. Social Enterprise UK then the SEC had told us when we joined that  it was “beyond their current focus”.  It had even been described in a 2008 EU consultation.  USAID and the British Council had also responded to correspondence on the subject.

Social business then has created a precedent – being hijacked, pushed out of the way in the name of ideals.

This week Liam Black of Wavelength draws our attention to the plight of Muhammad Yunus, who like ourselves is facing a hijack of the effort of a lifetime.   Dr Yunus asks for support which from me he has, as I would expect from my own fellow citizens and especially those in the world of social enterprise.


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