Last week, Philip Knight, the CEO at Nike, announced he will donate $500 million to Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) for cancer research (pending matching donations). It is his third in a series of donations ($100 million in 2008 and $125 million last year) that have helped bolster OHSU's stand as one of the leading health and research institutes in the country. While Knight is not necessarily Nike, the two are so intertwined that his generosity certainly reflects back well on Oregon's largest corporation.
Moreover, last month Wal-Mart extended benefits to employee's partners, "regardless of gender." While the Arkansas giant soft-pedaled the LGBTQ elements of the decision, declaring "it's a business decision, not a moral or political decision," the directive it provides other companies and the help it lends to setting a national standard cannot be denied.
Sure, Wal-Mart has done its share of damage to mom-and-pop stores in rural communities, but it also has stepped forward to draw various social issues into the mainstream. (Two years ago, for example, Wal-Mart, which sells 18 percent of the vegetables in the country, publicly began to introduce organic fruits and vegetables in its offerings.)
This week, we give the Glass Slipper to corporations that are progressing social issues. And before you flip your lid, Mr. Occupy This Hippie, take a moment, breathe through your nose, exhale through your beard and consider what we're saying: Yes, over the past few years, corporations—often rightly so—have been vilified, with financial institutions from Enron to Bank of America largely responsible for driving the nation's economy into the ditch, and taking tens of thousands of pension plans and family homes along with them. Worse yet, three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court removed restrictions from corporations donating to political campaigns, a dangerous legal decision which opened floodgates for corporations to overwhelm U.S. politics. In more than 80 percent of campaigns, the candidate with the most funding wins—and increasingly that funding is coming from corporations.
But it is heartening when this influence is used for good. Like Peter Parker's uncle reminding his spider-bitten nephew, "with great power, comes great responsibilities." Indeed.
While certainly local companies have long sponsored local softball teams and contributed to the charities, traditionally the social role of mega-corporations has been minimal. In fact, another landmark decision in 1919, at the dawn of the modern corporate world, declared that a corporation—in this incidence, a burgeoning Dodge Motors—had the sole responsibility to make money, not to directly benefit a community. Henry Ford had sued to provide more benefits for his workers, and to build up the community, but the court said corporations' primary objective is to earn money for their shareholders, not benefit the community. Through the remainder of the 20th century, that ruling served as corporations' polar star.
But that philosophy began to loosen in the miid-80s when companies like Ben & Jerry's blatantly declared that their purpose actually was to benefit its employees and community, making big investments into its staff's lives and health, managing a "1 percent for Peace" campaign and establishing employee-managed foundations to sponsor social causes across the U.S.
It is heartening to see that philosophy is finally gaining wider acceptance—and even legal backing. This past June, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law a classification known as "B-Corporations," creating a legal designation for commercial companies that want to organize their operations specifically to benefit employees and their community. This is an important step towards allowing corporations in Oregon to flex their social compassion.
With some of the country's largest corporations—Wal-Mart, Nike, and even, arguably, Starbucks, with its tepid decision last week to restrict guns in their coffeeshops—throwing their influence towards progressing some of the countries most vexing social issues, it is perhaps the dawn of a different era of corporate responsibility, one that lends itself to community benefit, not just the own bottom line.