A banner at the Women's March on Philadelphia on January 21, 2017.

Date: January 31, 2017

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Kant Touch This: Corporations Learn to Be Kind

Many economic realities changed ten days ago when President Trump got to work. One thing, however, did not. It may soon appear that thinning government budgets led to more corporations and foundations funding social justice initiatives, but the market was already swinging that way.

The Ford Foundation spent most of 2015 cutting more than half of their initiatives to focus solely on addressing the causes of inequality. The MacArthur Foundation hopes to eliminate a single social problem with a massive funding balloon. And the Gates Foundation, largest of all, has reorganized its efforts to fund moonshot programs while cooperating with partners from its home state of Washington to central India.

Government policy changes offer a further opportunity to funders. The American Civil Liberties Union collected record donations last weekend after rapidly responding to President Trump’s ban on refugees and visitors from seven Muslim-majority nations. Planned Parenthood, a women’s healthcare provider threatened by the Trump administration, has garnered so much support that one local leader credited the president with having “awoken a sleeping giant.”

Companies of all sizes are staking out their first political territory, from two Midwestern Chili’s locations briefly donating a portion of sales to an East Coast theater putting its diverse cast through equality training before the debut of a racially sensitive play. Grant writers, however, need to keep their eyes on the prize: if you have an idea that can address a social problem – especially if that idea is scalable or can be replicated – the time to come forward is now.

Why private enterprise? Why now? You would get very different economic answers from the profit-centered perspective of Milton Friedman (read it, writers – it’s coming back) and the more holistic views of R. Edward Freeman, so let’s go back to the fundamentals. Immanuel Kant, who wrote “The Metaphysics of Morals” twenty years after Adam Smith wrote about the wealth of nations, tells us we have “perfect” and “imperfect rights,” which we defend with “duties of right” and “duties of virtue.” Stanford can fill the rest of your week with Kantian morality, but here’s a good short version.

Perfect rights are anything written down and enforced by our legal system. Montgomery Burns makes a mint selling electricity to Springfield while he doesn’t help the poor and vulnerable in town; his duties of right are fulfilled by profit, and Milton Friedman gives him two bony thumbs up. Imperfect rights, however, include our responsibility to the environment of our business, from the workers we employ to anyone affected by our product. Immanuel Kant would indeed release the hounds on Burns, who abandoned his duties of virtue, leaving others to clean up the mess.

So much for morals. Back to business. Business requires deals with new contacts, expectations of enforceable contracts, expanding trade opportunities, and other things often taken for granted in a developed nation that has enshrined the rule of law. Increasing inequality undermines local and global confidence in the system that generates and protects these requirements, making business riskier, more difficult, and less profitable. Maybe this is why corporations and foundations are starting to see social responsibility – even without the positive public relations content – as a good self-interested move.

Beware, however, of the counterargument that corporate grant making may be guilty of perpetuating inequality by controlling the means and opportunities of social justice initiatives within the elite engines of social movement. Foundations are of the system, not outside it, and equality in this context means “make the system work for everyone,” not “remake the system to include everyone.” This is where grant writers have a truly singular responsibility: to interpret the ideas that need to be realized into the language of power, profit, and results.

And, for social justice warriors who would prefer to avoid this moral mess entirely, there are several non-corporate solutions: small donations solicited by a smart campaign, local or issue-based “giving collectives,” product design for progress and profit alike, or retooling the concept to work on trade or security instead of money.

We’ll be back with tips on how to match your idea to the funding it needs – without selling out the purpose.

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