Acton Institute Powerblog

The Problem of ‘Giving Back to the Community’

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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.

Nick Smith


  • lingvistika

    Somewhere on YouTube there is an interview with a CEO of Nestlé in which he mentions being at a conference where other executives talked of the need to “give back”. He bluntly says, “I do not need to give back, because I have not stolen anything.” He then goes on to explain the same things mentioned in this article, but much more vividly — all the employment his company provides, the resources it manages, and more. He makes a very good case. It’s a classic moment.

    • Curt Day

      His attitude illustrates the problem. There is no way he could have his business at any location unless he consumes the resources of that location including the workers who make the money for him, the community that helps shape the kind of workers he will have, gov’t services such as fire and police departments, and the gov’t that passes and enforces laws that both makes demands of him and provides protection. And did he forget to thank the military that protects his freedom to conduct business?

      What good case? He provides a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking where he reduces the interaction between his company and the community to that of supplying employment and thus filters out what he gets from the community and the gov’t.

      • lingvistika

        Curt, aren’t you forgetting something? Nestlé pays massive taxes to compensate the government for all those things in Europe and almost everywhere it is located. You also mention the company “consuming the workers” as if they were paid no salaries, but of course Nestlé’s workers make competitive wages for the market they’re living in — plus massive social benefits in Europe. I’ve never seen a food processing company “consume” a person, except in a case early in the last century where a friend’s grandfather slipped off a catwalk into a brewing vat of beer.

        It seems you’re engaging in all-or-nothing thinking yourself by imagining that companies take resources without paying for them.

        • Curt Day


          First, since 67% of the corporations in this country do not pay fed tax and up to 60% of the corporations in this country do not pay state taxes, I cannot assume that Nestlé pays massive taxes to compensate the gov’t.

          Second, the society that produces the workers also has a bill. The better that society is supported, the more positive the influence that the society has on the laborer who works at Nestlé. The less that society is supported, the less positive influence that society can have on Nestlé. So, you really missed the point by restating what I said. I didn’t say that Nestlé consumes workers, though that might be true depending on the workload. I said that, like all other companies, Nestlé consumes the resources of the location. That means that each of its location provides specific kinds of workers who carry into the workplace certain views and values that contribute to the effort and quality they put into their work.

          Finally, the sentiment expressed by the guy at Nestlé is one that is often used to rationalize laws that allow companies to pay no taxes.

          • Adam__Baum

            If a corporation doesn’t pay taxes, it’s stockholders generally do pay taxes.

  • Curt Day

    Business – if it is successful – is always giving to the community. Really?

    First, not all businesses include integrity in their definitions of “successful.” But second, to say that businesses are always giving to the community to the exclusion of saying that they are always taking from the community relies on redefining the traditional definition of the word “stakeholder.” A business’s impact on the community is two way. It also consumes the resources of the community and enjoys the benefits and/or endures the curses of its current society.

    But finally, such a belief fosters the idea that businesses should pay nothing in taxes because it is already giving to the community. Considering that for many businesses, the owners are not from the community and the reason why the business is there in the first place is because of the benefits it returns to the owners, such reasoning that business’s are always giving to the community encourages people to regard each “successful” business as a temple of worship.

  • Curt Day

    First, when I say it consumes the resources of the location of its business including the workers I am talking about how companies benefit and use the kinds of workers that a location provides. And this is what I wrote in my last response.

    Second, with the percentages of companies that don’t pay taxes, then I would not presume that he does or does not. In addition, I was simply making the point that what he expressed in words is what other people, whom I have heard, express in rationalizing not taxing companies.

    Finally, there are far more benefits that a company enjoys from a location than the ones paid for by taxes supposing that a company does pay taxes. As for being efficient in responding to flood and we can include tornado victims, the Occupy Movement has been more effective than the fed gov’t too. But there is a lot of partisan fighting against helping the flood victims by republicans.

  • Josh Dollins

    I agree that businesses can and do provide and give plenty to their communities even without charitable works. However the nestle example is not the best example here his point is valid but seems mean spirited we’re talking about a man who if you look into it has some interesting views on things (look up on his stance with regards to water as a right for all of mankind as opposed to something he can bottle and sell etc.) you can get carried away with business as for this business regarding taxes plenty of businesses (GE for instance) pay little or no taxes through various loop holes

    • Jump

      Hi Josh, the Nestle example wasn’t mine. I haven’t read it.

  • Eric Fisk

    The use of the phrase “Giving Back” isn’t used at random nor is it an accident. Some marketing retard figured out that if you could change the wording of solicitations from “donate” or “contribute” to the words “give back” it might actually guilt people into giving or giving more than they would otherwise.

    Contributing or donating puts all the “power” into the person making the donation, but if you ask people to “give back,” that automatically you implies that you were given or you took too much and now you have to make reparations. A fine example of this was seen in my sociology class this past summer; the reason why rich folks have their property is because poor people went without.

    Your extended family has a summer cottage by the lake three states away because Jamal went without an afterschool and nutrition program when your grandpa bought it. You have that SUV because someone else went without the year something the you bought that. You have that large home because you’re not living in the inner-city and helping to take care of the problems of the ghettos. Perfect example of this comes from Joe Madison all the problems in the inner city would disappear if upwardly mobile whites weren’t allowed to move out of the cities and into the suburbs. So long as they could keep the rich white housing dollar in the city urban ghettos would be a thing of the past.

    The reason why you have your property, your belongings, your furniture, your vacations, your retirement savings, your kids college/university tuition is because poor people went without and thus the logic… you have to give something back. You have what you have because the establishment lets you have it and when the time comes for “social justice” and the redistribution of wealth is a reality they’re going to take it from you by force.

    In short, if we were to ask a real “liberal,” “progressive,” and especially a self-proclaimed socialist they would admit that all the problems the poor and working class are caused by the middle class, the upper middle class and the typically vilified CEO’s.

    If you’re in the middle class after working hard and did what’s right by getting a good education before getting a good job and chasing after the American Dream then by this logic you’re what’s “wrong” according to these “progressives.” It’s your fault, you’re the one to blame and you should be ashamed… now it’s time for you to GIVE BACK!