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.