A recent ad on our listener-supported community radio station here in Boise spoke of a business sponsor’s practice of “giving back to the community.” This is done, of course, by sponsoring the radio station and other similar causes. As a fan of the station in question, I’m grateful for such local sponsors, and I’m grateful that they give to the community in that way. There is, however, a problem – not with the practice, but with the way we describe it. The phrase “giving back to the community” belies a deep misunderstanding of the nature of business.
The picture that seems to be assumed is that most of the time, through its everyday work, the business is in fact taking from the community. Then, from time to time, it chooses to “give back” to the same community. At a superficial level this language makes sense: most of the time it is customers – members of the community – who are giving money to the business, while the business is then giving money back through its charitable donations. But this misses the fact that the business – if it is successful – is always giving to the community. A profitable business, conducted with integrity, is not taking from the community at all; indeed, its profits are nothing more or less than indicators of the value that the community has received from the business.
This is more than a technical matter. Business is a means by which we do good for others: not merely by making money and then giving some of that money away, but by the very conduct of the business itself. Business gives: by organizing the labor of others and thereby making it more productive, by seeking out the desires of the community, by meeting those desires through creativity and effort. And this is a deeply spiritual matter. Business is a vocation, a calling from God, by which we serve and benefit the community in which we live.
So, I’m grateful for the local telecom company that is supporting our community radio station. But they’re not giving back to the community something they had previously taken. To say so is to denigrate the true nature of the business vocation. Rather, they are giving even more, giving beyond what they have already given through their productive contribution to our community in the telecom industry.
Nick Smith is an alumnus of several Acton programs and lives with his wife and four children in beautiful southern Idaho, where he serves as pastor of the United Reformed Church of Nampa.