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March 8, 1993

The Character of an Organization

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If generosity is a quality of personhood, that begs a question: what does it mean to affirm that an organization—say, a business with a giving plan, a do-gooder nonprofit, or a church with an outreach to the community—is generous? Is it absurd to even make the assertion? Can an organization be known for its generosity? Can an enterprise develop a ‘culture’ of generosity?
When it comes to business, there are some who argue that we should flip the term cause marketing and make it marketing cause (emphasis on the marketing) because, when for-profit businesses engage in service to a cause, they are really just doing it as another way to make money. The theory goes, it may wind up doing some good, but the primary impetus it isn’t altruistic. It’s essentially artificial—a put-on display that has little do with what the company is really all about.
I see the issue. And insincerity is certainly a gaping pitfall in this area—we’ll be getting to that more in the next chapter. Still, I believe that the attitude of generosity can be grafted into an entire family, community, or corporation. When a bunch of people who have a generous lifestyle, a reputation for serving the social good, and credibility in the generosity sphere aggregate under a rooftop, their corporate identity can be known for generosity in a public and meaningful way.
I think of it this way: it’s like how a person develops a character.
Historically, the word character refers to an engraved mark. An individual’s character is established by his or her habits and practices over a period of time, just as repeated etching in metal or wood will create a groove. If I want to be known as a man of honesty, then I need to make the decision to be honest over and over again. After repeated strokes, an image appears—the condition of honesty. A pattern or character is etched. The science of neuroplasticity would support this assertion, as it suggests that choices and habits actually create new neural pathways in the brain. I actually become different by what I choose to focus on. And so if I practice honesty repeatedly, you’ll look up one day and see that I’m an honest man.
The same kind of thing happens within an organization. If the leaders reinforce the conditions that encourage employees to work hard, for example, then it will be known as a hardworking organization. Or an organization can have a creative character. Or a relaxed character. Or whatever the group’s leaders are aiming for. An organization can also have a generous character if it practices generosity consistently over a period of time in how it treats people, how it treats the planet, what its values are, how it delivers its offering, and so on. The image of generosity appears in time, and it is not artificial but true to life. It becomes part of our corporate culture or corporate character.

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