Monday, December 29, 2008

Idealists, Mercenaries and Commerce

Glenn Kelman, the CEO of Redfin writes it far better than I ever could (TechFlash):

Yes, money is the lifeblood of a startup, but in trying to convince us it is everything else too, the mercenaries are attacking what they've always hated most about us: our soul.
Read the whole thing. This also ties into the whole silly microfinance commercialization debate. Nick Kristof had a column in the NYT a few days ago asking "if a businessman rakes in a hefty profit while doing good works, is that charity or greed? Do we applaud or hiss?". What is it about businesses who profit in the process of doing good that brings out the nastiest in some people? Especially those who supposedly claim to do what they do for far purer motives (but in far less efficient and in thoroughly unprofitable ways?).

It's almost as if some people think that if you make money at it, regardless of how much good you do, it just doesn't count. Apparently being a bloodsucking profiteer is a far greater sin than being entirely (or perhaps just more) ineffective. The related issue that Kelman brings up, is that among profit motivated firms, firms with purpose often outperform (though admittedly the evidence seems more anecdotal than empirical). I totally agree (and want to believe), but then again, I'm an idealist.

Update: Forbes explores yet another related question - why Americans give so much to charity relative to the rest of the world: "The other cynical motive often attributed to givers is that they are building monuments to themselves: They desire to be remembered. But I can't see how this kind of self-interested giving is a bad thing. In some cultures, tradition dictates that the wealthy extend lavish hospitality in exchange for respect; this has the benefit of spreading food and resources around."

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