Neil Young is urging you not to buy coffee at Starbucks anymore.
He’s upset that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which Starbucks is a member, is suing Vermont over the state’s new law that will require labelling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients by summer of 2016.
In an open letter, Young claims that “we have a right to know what we put in our mouths.” As I’ve argued before, that simply isn’t true, at least not as a generalization. You certainly have a right to control what you put in your mouth, but that doesn’t — and cannot possibly — include a right to know every detail of every thing you put in your mouth. If you don’t trust something, don’t eat or drink it. Don’t buy it. But you don’t have the right to insist on knowing everything about it. You might want to know whether your food was harvested by the light of a full moon, but you don’t have a right to that information. A business that refuses to give you that information isn’t violating your rights.
It doesn’t help, of course, that one of the other key players in the lawsuit is Monsanto, a company that for many people represents evil incarnate. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m no fan of Monsanto. But its involvement shouldn’t blind us to the fact that GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are, as a category, no less safe than any other kind of food. Nor should it blind us to the fact that the GMO category is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive if what you’re worried about is potentially-harmful forms of genetic modification. Scientists understand this. Neil Young does not.
Young is right about a couple of things, though. He rightly suggests, for example, that public pressure might get Starbucks to change its ways. This is quite plausible. Lots of companies are already caving in to irrational public fears regarding GMOs. Starbucks could be next, so Young’s strategy, regrettably, just might work.
He’s also right that there is more at stake, here, than what can be sold in one relatively small US state. It’s entirely possible that if the Vermont law is allowed to stand, the precedent it sets will help make it easier for other states to jump on the bandwagon.
But what Young is right about is far outweighed by what he’s wrong about. He claims that the lawsuit is trying to “stop accurate food labeling.” That’s a gross misrepresentation. There’s nothing importantly “accurate” about a label that says “this product contains GMOs,” even when it’s technically true. For that to count as accurate labelling, it would have to be a meaningful label (one that distinguishes one kind of ingredient from an importantly different kind) and it would have to have some chance of being understood by customers. Such a label is much more likely to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and mistakenly taken as a reliable guide to better purchasing decisions.
Consider: what if some jurisdiction foolishly passed a law saying that all foods containing carbon had to be labelled as such? What if someone opposed that law? Would they be fighting “accurate food labelling?” All food contains carbon. Pointing it out helps nobody. And claiming that they have a “right” to be told it is just plain silly.
Canada’s place in the world has been in the news lately, for a variety of reasons.
For starters, Canadian jets have been hitting Islamic State military positions in Iraq. For American readers, who are more used to seeing their military show its muscle, I should clarify: this is newsworthy in Canada. Canadians have historically thought of themselves as peacekeepers — we have a long history of participation in UN peacekeeping missions — but have less often, in recent decades at least, been involved in outright warfare.
And on the economic front, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is just back from visiting China, a trip aimed at solidifying and expanding economic relations between the two countries. Not surprisingly, given the focus of the visit, a press release from the Prime Minister’s Office makes no mention of human rights. But as others have noted repeatedly, China has a pretty bad record in that regard. A liberal democracy like Canada must be concerned (and has occasionally expressed concern) about China’s record on human rights. So the trip to China meant the PM had to smile for the cameras while presumably biting his tongue. It’s not hard to understand that decision: the trip reportedly resulted in $2.8 billion worth of new deals — a big amount for a relatively small economy like Canada’s. The deal is less important for China’s massive economy, naturally. But it is no doubt important for China’s leadership to be seen shaking hands with leaders of respected liberal democracies. As political scientist Charles Burton put it, “the Chinese leadership got the affirmation of political legitimacy that they wanted from Canada.” Is Canada hoping to demonstrate leadership here, helping its new best pal see the way forward on human rights? Or is Canada instead being led by the nose?
But Canada faces other challenges too on the global scene. Canada’s dairy farmers, long protected by a system of quotas and price controls, are currently haunted by the spectre of international competition. In an era of free (or freer) trade, such protections are increasingly coming under fire. Most recently, New Zealand (charmingly referred to by some as the ‘Saudi Arabia of milk’) is pushing to gain access for its milk producers to the Canadian market. Is Canada going to lead in free trade, or in protectionism?
All of this is to say that the role of Canada on the world stage — the military stage, the political stage, and the economic stage — is evolving rapidly. High on the list of related questions is whether there is a leadership role for Canada, and if so, just what that role is. Canadians know that they aren’t going to play a leadership role militarily. We aren’t a superpower (we rank 57th, globally, in terms of active military personnel, and our defence budget is the 15th biggest in the world). And in terms of overall population, our 35 million puts us at 38th in the world, and our GDP is the 11th highest in the world — respectable for our size, but hardly an economic superpower.
But the truth of it is — and this is a point I work hard to impress upon my students — that leadership isn’t a function reserved for the top of the food-chain. In a corporation, leadership isn’t exclusively a function for CEOs and other C-suite executives. Leadership happens throughout an organization. And I don’t just mean that there are managers at all levels. That’s true, but not the point: not all managers are leaders in any meaningful sense. Leadership is a role, not a job title, and you (yes you!) can be a leader if you have the skills and use them to step up to the plate. So Canada (and other non-superpower countries) can still aim to play a leadership role on the international stage, if they are willing and interested to.
That’s why the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre (of which I am Director) is proud to be supporting The Economist‘s first-ever Canada Summit. (You can get a $400 discount on registration by clicking on that link!) The overarching theme is the question, “how can Canada play a larger, global role?” The Canada Summit is characteristically ambitious (I’ve participated in one of The Economist’s events previously), but the organizers have gathered together an impressive lineup of speaker to tackle the Summit’s agenda. Of course, no one event can really answer such ambitious questions. But the conversation is important. Personally or nationally, the question of whether this is your time to lead is always an open one. But the right time to start thinking about it is always now.
Canadians mistrust politicians at about twice the rate at which they mistrust CEOs. Is that good news or bad news for Canada’s business leaders?
The survey, which we believe to be the first of its kind, asked Canadian voters their views on a range of issues related to the ethics of political leadership. The full results of the study will be released on Wednesday, November 5, at a half-day event I’m hosting at Ryerson University, called The Ethics of Political Leadership.
Our goal in doing the survey was to go beyond the facile truism that voters don’t trust politicians. We wanted to know more. Which ethical issues do Canadians believe to be the most serious? Do Canadians have greater faith in their federal, provincial, or municipal leaders? How common do Canadians think various ethical infractions are? How much do Canadians (mis)trust politicians, compared to other members of professions, such as CEOs, judges, and journalists? It turns out that politicians overall don’t fare well: 50% of respondents said that they “do not trust” politicians, whereas only 25% said the same of CEOs. Journalists, and especially judges, fare much better.
How happy should Canada’s business leaders be about the fact that they fare so much better than our widely-mistrusted politicians? The truth is that CEOs should be worried. Only 22% of Canadians say they trust CEOs, compared to the 36% who trust public servants and the 65% who trust judges. The numbers put CEOs just below the middle of the pack, among the 9 professions we asked about. That’s higher than some of us might have expected, surely, but it’s also much lower than we might have hoped for. The world of business, after all, runs on trust. Contracts and warrantees only go so far: without trust, markets suffer.
For that matter, CEOs should be worried too about the low numbers for politicians. Not only is a lack of trust in politicians bad for democracy: it’s bad for business. How effective can politicians be in effecting smart regulations, smart tax policies, and smart public policy frameworks for economic development if they don’t have the trust of the electorate?
Canadian democracy is in the midst of a crisis of trust. And while CEOs may be more widely trusted than politicians are, but they have little reason to celebrate overall.
*The survey was conducted between Oct 17 and 22, 2014, using an online panel. A nationally representative sample of n=1039 was surveyed. More information about the survey is available on the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre site.
Canadians were caught off-guard recently when Jian Ghomeshi, the popular host of Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s radio show “Q” was fired by the public broadcaster. This was not the traditional “he’s moving on to other projects” kind of departure, but a clear and abrupt severing of ties. The statement issued noted that “The CBC is saddened to announce its relationship with Jian Ghomeshi has come to an end.” Boom.
Just a day later, Ghomeshi fired back via Facebook, making clear that his departure was not amicable. Ghomeshi also revealed his version of what was at the heart of the matter: his sex life, and in particular his preference for rough sex. He said he was into BDSM, and asserted that those who shared his bedroom had participated in some rough play entirely consensually. He implied that his former employer, the CBC, was simply stuck up and couldn’t handle his edgy lifestyle. That same day, Ghomeshi’s lawyers filed a $55 million lawsuit against his former employer, for defamation, breach of confidence, and more. In the days since, a number of women have come forward to claim that they were subject to various kinds of abuse and assault by Ghomeshi—all of it decidedly non-consensual.
The case is ethically interesting—or is at least fodder for an interesting discussion—in a couple of different ways. Ghomeshi is of course just one case, and his firing was far from your run-of-the-mill dismissal. But the case helps us see a couple of different dimensions along which cases might vary.
One dimension has to do with, well, what in fact went on between Ghomeshi and the women involved. If—hypothetically, because the evidence really is mounting against him—Ghomeshi were telling the truth, then what happened was some “sexual practices that are mutually agreed upon, consensual, and exciting for both partners.” And if that were the case—again, hypothetically—then the question would arise whether it is OK to sack an employee for participating in some sexual practices of which you (or your customers) might disapprove. The CBC is, by all accounts, a somewhat conservative organization (though Ghomeshi was part of the CBC’s attempt, over the last decade, to become more hip). But even a conservative organization needs to be careful about holding an employee’s off-the-job activities against him.
At the other end of the spectrum, if the worst case scenario is true, then the CBC was faced with the prospect of an employee being potentially charged with multiple accounts of both common and sexual assault. Here we see shades of the Ray Rice case, and need to ask whether criminal acts are sufficient reason, ethically, to terminate an employee whose on-the-job performance has been otherwise satisfactory. Legally, of course, guys like Ghomeshi and Rice often have a “morals clause” written into their contracts—clauses that permit their employers to terminate them if they cause substantial embarrassment to the organization. But ethically, it’s not so clear: if someone does something illegal, the legal system has a million bits of due process that ensure that the investigation and trial are fair, and that the punishment fits the crime. Most employers are likely to be less thorough, and firing is a serious outcome. Ethically, firing isn’t always going to be OK.
(This is not the first time the CBC has fired an employee for behaviour that threatened to cast a bad light upon the organization. In 2003, a CBC reporter was fired for rubbing raw chicken and dirt onto some chocolates and mailing them to a critic. After a protracted legal battle, the reporter was eventually reinstated.)
This brings us to the second dimension of this case, which has to do with fame and responsibility. Ghomeshi is a famous broadcaster, a man once plausibly on-course for one day being declared a bona fide Canadian icon. His face is—or, rather, was—plastered all over the walls at the CBC’s headquarters. And as I suggested recently with regard to the Ray Rice scandal, cases involving famous men doing awful things don’t necessarily help us understand the ethical subtlety of the more general problem of whether to fire employees who do bad things off the job. Famous people evoke all sorts of odd and perhaps extreme moral judgments in us. “He’s famous and should have known better.” “He’s powerful and abused that power.” “He’s rich, so I hate him and he deserves what he gets.” And so on. And all of those intuitions may, of course, be entirely on-target with regard to Ghomeshi. But to the extent to which they are intuitions, rather than conclusions reached based on careful reasoning, we ought to be wary of them.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Keurig’s business model is pretty much the same as the business model used by most producers of desktop printers. Desktop printers have become almost trivially cheap — you can buy a laser printer for under a hundred bucks now — but the cartridges cost a bundle. That’s where they make their money. Likewise, Keurig sells its popular single-cup coffee makers at astonishingly reasonable prices, and makes its money on the coffee pods. Naturally, given that the pods are lucrative and easy to make, there have been imitators. A large number of companies have sold, over the last few years, their own “K-cups,” pods of coffee designed specifically to work in Keurig’s machines. Consumers love this, both because competition lowers prices and because it expands the range of roasts and flavours available.
To fight the onslaught of packagers of (perfectly legal) pirate K-cups, Keurig recently starting selling its “Keurig 2.0″ line of coffee makers. The 2.0 machines incorporate a digital rights management (DRM) system, designed to ensure that Keurig machines work only with Keurig branded and Keurig licensed pods, effectively shutting out the competition, at least temporarily. The result is that all those non-licensed Keurig imitators won’t work in the new 2.0 machines.
Who ultimately loses in this fight? Arguably the consumer. Not only has choice been restricted, but there’s also an enormous information gap. Keurig has done a less than stellar job — I’m being charitable, here — of informing consumers about their new DRM system. The result has been frustration, both with the newly-limited choice of pods, but also with coffee machines that don’t work as expected.
Take me for example. My beloved Keurig died a couple of weeks ago. Its high-pressure water pump moaned and groaned and finally gave up the ghost. So I promptly bought a shiny new Keurig 2.0 (with a number of fancy new features) at Costco. Nowhere on the packaging did Keurig inform me that most of the dozen or so boxes of coffee and tea currently in my basement (well over $100 worth) simply will not work in the new machine. And it’s not just ‘pirate’ pods that won’t work; nor will older Keurig-licensed K-cups, ones that bear the Keurig logo but that don’t have have the DRM-ready labels that the new machines require. Those are essentially garbage now.
A call to Keurig resulted in an offer of three gift certificates, each good for a box of pods (worth $12 or so). But that doesn’t come anywhere close to covering what I’ve lost, never mind the frustration.
And it’s not just Keurig itself. Retailers have been complicit in this abuse of customers. Many of them still stock the ‘pirate’ pods, as well as older Keurig-licensed pods. In some cases (and Canadian Tire for example is guilty of this), they do this while aggressively selling the 2.0 machines, without any hint to the consumer of what the problem is.
The battle of the K-cups is about a bunch of things: intellectual property, competition, and innovation for starters. The back-and-forth of those things is pretty much standard fare in a thriving market economy. But ethical businesses — not to mention smart businesses — need to work harder to stay true to their goal of providing good value to their customers.
“When you have $1 million, you’re a lucky person. When you have $10 million, you have trouble. When you have more than $1 billion, you have responsibility.” So says Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group. Alibaba — the Chinese e-commerce giant — gained international prominence after its recent record-breaking IPO.
The talk about responsibility is not just talk. Ma says he has earmarked $3 billion of his IPO earnings to donate to environmental and educational projects in China. So Ma is clearly a man who believes in giving back. On the corporate side, under his leadership Alibaba has pledged to donate 0.3% of profits to environmental protection initiatives. If 0.3% seems like a small amount, consider that that’s a percentage of revenue, not profits. And on annual revenues in the $7.5 billion range, 0.3% turns out to be something a little over $22 million. Nothing to sneeze at.
So let me ask a silly question: why do we think such charitable moves are a good thing? Well, pretty simply because we think they produce good outcomes.
But if we commend such moves, ethically, because they are likely to produce good outcomes, then we should also praise Alibaba’s business activities more generally. Ecommerce companies like Alibaba connect people together and enable commerce. They enable enormous quantities of mutually-advantageous exchange.
According to Wired,
Ma says part of his strategy for growing the company is to continue expanding into developing countries—countries where approximately 6.5 billion people don’t use e-commerce today. “That’s the opportunity we could have,” he says. “We’re trying to help Nigerian SMEs sell to the Philippines and the Philippines sell to Pakistan and Pakistan sell to Argentina.”
If Alibaba can achieve that, it will have done more good in the world — and deserve more moral praise — than Ma and Alibaba’s philanthropy combined.
What are an employer’s ethical obligations when an employee gets caught doing something bad off the clock? The example of the day, of course, is Ray Rice. As the entire universe now knows, Rice the football player who was caught on video savagely hitting his then-fiancée (now wife), knocking her unconscious. The incident, once it became public, left the his team (the Baltimore Ravens) and the National Football League with the question of what to do about it, and what to do about Rice.
Rice’s case apparently posed something of a dilemma for the court system, too: back in May, Rice was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault, but those charges were later dropped.
Consider also the case of Centreplate CEO Desmond Hague, who was caught on video viciously kicking a friend’s dog in an elevator. Hague was first suspended, and then eventually terminated in the wake of a public uproar.
Interestingly, in both cases the offences took place away from work. Neither offence was an offence against the employer, at least not directly. Yet it was widely believed that Rice and Hague’s employers needed to do something, something beyond whatever legal sanctions might apply.
Of course, in those two cases, the employers’ hands were forced by enormous public pressure. Bowing to such pressure is perhaps most understandable in the case of the NFL’s (eventual) response to the Rice case. Football players are exceedingly public figures, and many people see them as actual or potential role models for kids. Rice is a crummy role model, to say the least, and is therefore a public relations nightmare for the NFL. The same reasoning applies to athletes losing endorsement contracts: it’s no surprise at all that Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Vick lost major endorsement contracts after their respective scandals. Advertisers are buying the athlete’s image and reputation. And when those are devalued, the athlete no longer has any value as a spokesman.
Legally, in Canada and the U.S., at least, employers don’t need to give much reason for firing an employee. But what about ethically? Is bad behaviour (or even criminal behaviour) away from work a good enough reason to sack someone?
There are a few circumstances in which an employer is clearly ethically justified in taking action. First, if the bad behaviour suggests that the employee is liable to act badly on the job in a way that is going to pose a risk to customers, to fellow employees, or to the general public. This might have been the case with Hague. Although we don’t have much evidence, the dog-kicking incident might suggest a man with a temper. What if he’s inclined to treat subordinates the way he treats helpless animals?
Second, an employer is likely to be ethically justified in acting if the bad behaviour directly implicates on-the-job performance. Consider, for example, an airline pilot caught buying cocaine. A coke-head pilot simply can’t be tolerated.
Third, if the bad behaviour in question suggests such poor judgment that the employee simply could no longer be trusted, then an employer might well be right to let him or her go. Some bad behaviour might just imply that the employee is a loose cannon. People are generally hired not just for their talent, but also for their judgment. No judgment means no job.
But what about beyond that? What about the sales clerk spotted smoking pot in the park? That’s technically illegal in most jurisdictions, but does the employer have any business firing her for it? Or what about the salesman who is known to have been arrested for hitting his wife, tried, convicted, and released after a minimal jail term? Should his employer fire him, or consider him already to have been punished? Certainly, domestic violence might make us worry about how he would treat female colleagues. But what if, for whatever reason, that’s not an issue? Is merely having done something bad in one’s personal life any of an employer’s business?
In some cases, such a wrongdoer would simply be impossible to work with, or impossible to have managing a team of employees. If the wrongdoing is widely known within the organization, reputation alone might be enough to make the employee a liability.
But it’s also worth considering that an employer who fires an employee simply based on the wrongdoing itself is effectively imposing a penalty — acting like judge, jury, and executioner — without any of the due-process protections that accompany a criminal trial. It also implies a kind of double jeopardy: being tried and possibly convicted twice for the same crime.
Further, it arguably represents an intrusion of the world of employment into our personal lives. Just maybe we want to keep those spheres separate, not to protect the wife beater but to protect the rest of us from nosy and self-righteous bosses.
There’s a saying in legal circles that “hard cases make bad law.” In other words, our judgments about extreme or unusual cases can induce us to generalize in unhelpful ways. I think that applies quite nicely to our ethical judgment about Ray Rice and Des Hague. Rice and Hague are both wealthy, powerful men who did things that most of us find unthinkable. Before we leap to the conclusion that hell yes they should lose their jobs, we ought at least to think through what that conclusion would imply for a few million lesser offences.
Ok, pop quiz. How many people did Apple put out of work this week, when the tech giant announced the Apple Watch and the Apple Pay point-of-sale technology built into the new iPhone 6? How many hopes and dreams were dashed?
How many would-be smart-watch entrepreneurs are saying to themselves, “oh, well, maybe I won’t go ahead with that Kickstarter campaign after all”? How many credit card company employees are now contemplating other lines of work? How many people at Samsung and BlackBerry and Pebble and Sony are going to be out of work, as the relevant corporate divisions get downsized as those companies lose market share to Apple’s new products?
The exact number is hard to guess, but it’s certainly not zero.
To lose one’s job, even temporarily, is generally a very bad thing. It jeopardizes one’s ability to house and feed oneself and one’s family. Causing such an outcome would, in most circumstances, be a bad thing to do.
But for all the cynicism about the launch event and the products it featured, no one criticized Apple for having made life hard for executives and employees at other companies. No one is blaming Apple for the fact that its nifty new products are going to put people out of work.
Why? Because that sort of disruption is what capitalism thrives on. Capitalism is, and must be, subject to ethical constraints, but those are effectively just the rules of the game, not a denial of the nature of the game itself, and not an attempt to render it impossible to play the game.
Just imagine what it would look like if companies really were expected never to hurt anyone. That would mean never putting anyone out of work, which means never inventing anything new and never improving one’s own products and processes in a way that might risk putting a competitor, no matter how poorly run, out of business. Such a standard is simply not plausible, not a reasonable limit on doing business.
For sake of comparison, consider a different set of limits on business competition, including things like the prohibition on violence, or the idea that you shouldn’t actively disrupt a competitor’s operations. Those are rules the observance of which doesn’t stop you from getting on with your own work. It’s entirely feasible to compete while observing those rules, where it’s not possible to compete while promising not to put anyone out of a job.
The point here is a simple but deep one. Business ethics isn’t about being a saint, or an angel, or about trying to make everyone happy. At heart, it’s about finding reasonable limits on the pursuit of profit, or, more personally, on how we go about making a living.
Uber is in the news again, and not for happy reasons. The car service company has been accused of trying to poach drivers from competitors like Lyft. And, in the process of poaching drivers, Uber has apparently been responsible, over a 1-year period, for 5,000 or so cancelled Lyft rides — rides that were ordered and then unceremoniously cancelled. According to Casey Newton, whose piece for the Verge broke the story:
Uber is arming teams of independent contractors with burner phones and credit cards as part of its sophisticated effort to undermine Lyft and other competitors….Using contractors it calls ‘brand ambassadors,’ Uber requests rides from Lyft and other competitors, recruits their drivers, and takes multiple precautions to avoid detection.The effort, which Uber appears to be rolling out nationally, has already resulted in thousands of canceled Lyft rides and made it more difficult for its rival to gain a foothold in new markets.
Uber, for it’s part, says its brand ambassadors never intentionally cancel rides. But as others have observed, doing so is a foreseeable consequence of their driver-recruitment strategy. If an Uber brand ambassador contacts a Lyft driver who happens already to have been contacted (and this can only be determined after the ride is booked), they realize their current call is pointless (and may well raise Lyft’s suspicions, resulting in the caller getting blocked) and so they cancel the ride.
Now, I’m no Uber hater. In fact, I’ll admit from the start to being an Uber fan. I use the service frequently here in Toronto, and I love the model. But that makes it all the more disappointing that a company with a great idea is using scummy tactics to gain and hold market share.
Vox’s Timothy B. Lee has defended Uber. Poaching other companies’ employees, according to Lee, is par for the course. That’s what companies do. And since the best way for Uber to speak Lyft’s drivers (not truly employees, but close enough) by posing as customers and ordering a ride, that’s naturally what they’re doing. As Lee points out, this is completely legal (Uber’s brand ambassadors are, after all, paying for the drivers’ time) and is arguably beneficial to drivers to the extent that it makes them aware of new opportunities.
But that defence is off-target. It’s not clear that ordering a Lyft ride is the only way to find new drivers (what about the huge number of taxi drivers not yet affiliated with either company?) Of all the ways there are to recruit drivers (putting up posters near where cabbies aggregate?), why choose the one that just happens to interfere with a competitor’s business? Lee claims that a few thousand cancelled rides pales in comparison to the size of Lyft’s fleet of drivers (roughly 60,000). But that argument fails. It’s the principle of the the thing — sabotage is not OK — not just the actual degree of interference experienced. (Compare: shoplifting isn’t OK just because a store’s sales volume is large.)
Uber is not, contrary to what Andrew Leonard suggested in Salon, an example of “no-holds-barred free-market competition,” precisely because there is no such thing as no-holds-barred free-market competition, at least not in a vaguely capitalist economy. Capitalism embraces competition, but the kind of competition it embraces is not unrestricted. It is competition based on innovation, and on a dedication to producing a better product at a better price than the other guy does. As others have pointed out, failure to compete (say, when such failure takes the form of collusion) is itself unethical and illegal. But that fact certainly doesn’t licence every imaginable competitive strategy. Hockey, too, is a rough game. And players are obligated not to generously share the puck with members of the other team. But the best hockey — and the best business — happens when competitors fight hard within the rules of the game, winning because of their superior talent, not because they busted the other guy’s knees.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been mind-blogglingly successful, raising tens of millions of dollars and becoming a bona fide internet phenomenon. But it has also garnered considerable criticism. So, are the critics right? Is the Ice Bucket Challenge really an example of a terrible approach to philanthropy?
I took the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last week, after being challenged by a Facebook friend. As part of it, I also happily donated money to the cause. ALS (the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Schlerosis) is a good cause, and I had fun doing my bit. I encouraged (and encourage) others to take part.
But many people have found the Challenge off-putting, and the criticisms are worth considering.
So OK, to begin with: yes, an internet meme is a pretty silly way to decide which charities to support. If the only thing that inspires you to support a good cause is the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio dumped water on his head, you might want to rethink your priorities.
Critics have in particular focused on the fact that it’s far from clear that ALS, currently enjoying the limelight, is the world’s most important charitable cause. After all, the number of people suffering from ALS pales in comparison to the number of people who die from cancer or heart disease. True, but that’s not a reason not to donate to it. There is no “most worthy” cause. Charities vary along many dimensions, and there’s nothing wrongheaded about donating — even collectively donating lavishly — to help cure a disease that afflicts relatively few in a relatively tragic way.
Other critics have lamented more specifically the fact that the ALS Challenge is—gasp!—taking money away from other charities. And there is some evidence that that’s true. Money is finite, and presumably many people will donate less to other charities if they have donated to ALS. But this applies to any charity’s fundraising efforts. If the Canadian Cancer Society or the Heart and Stroke Foundation has an especially successful fundraising year, it likely means some other charity (or perhaps a great many small charities) will have had comparatively miserable ones. There’s no special reason to single out the Ice Bucket Challenge in this regard. As for me, like most people I know, I dug out an additional $100 out of my pocket—$100 I was liable to spend on dinner out, or on iTunes—and donated it to ALS Canada. I made a donation in addition to the other causes I regularly donate to.
And consider this: Most of the criticisms launched against the Ice Bucket Challenge are ones that apply to your local 10k Fun Run in support of cancer research, too. Or the dance-a-thon to raise money to feed the hungry. Focused on me and myaccomplishments, rather than on the charity? Check! Pressuring your friends into donating or sponsoring, independent of their own priorities? Check! Environmentally wasteful? Check! A non-thoughtful way to select a charity? Check!
One of the best things to come out of the Ice Bucket Challenge has been the vibrant discussion and the range of creative responses it has engendered. A friend of mine dumped water on her head (thus contributing to keeping the meme going) but donated to her own favourite charity, and in her video encouraged others to do exactly the same thing. Charlie Sheen dumped $10,000 in cash on his head, symbolizing the amount he was pledging to donate to the ALS Foundation. Matt Damon (co-founder of Water.org) dumped icy toilet water on his head, to draw attention not just to the stunt but to his own favourite cause, namely the provision of clean water.
In the end, the creativity and even the critical comments are good. It’s good for people to be talking about charity, and which charities to give to, and how to do it. Yes, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has faced considerable criticism. And that’s a good thing.