Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Why greed is no good

Published By: The Independent - 22 Apr 2008

This year, all the students joining Manchester Business School’s full-time MBA were immediately assigned to a small team supporting one of two dozen charitable projects in the city. They found themselves advising a community café, helping to tackle gun crime in the city, or supporting organizations working with older people, children or single mums. Whatever it was, they had to donate fifty hours of business expertise to their projects, while at the same time getting a crash course in team building and project management for themselves.

The school, which prides itself on its ‘Manchester Method’ of learning by doing, used to offer this good-words experience as a student option, but has now put it right at the beginning of its compulsory curriculum.

“It came about partly because students wanted it. With the whole rise of things like corporate social responsibility, this Generation X is looking for something a bit different,” says Mike Sheedy, an external consultant who directs the programme for the business school. “But they get a tremendous lot out of it. They may have never worked in a team before, never dealt with a non-profit organisation. It exposes them to the very basic problems that people have, and it is really eye-opening for them.”

Manchester isn’t alone in putting philanthropy closer to the heart of what it does. Many major business schools in the USA run non-profit projects, while here in the UK schools such as Henley and Ashridge also run charitable programmes. The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, at the Said Business School, in Oxford, has become well-known for charting and promoting cutting-edge philanthropic ideas, while the Cass Business School, at City University, in London, has a new Centre for Charity Effectiveness, running a variety of charity finance and accounting courses. Meanwhile the growing strength of Net Impact, the US-based organisation which encourages business leaders to improve the world, shows how the worlds of charity and business are drawing closer together. It now has 10,000 member on six continents and claims to be “one of the most influential networks of MBAs, graduate students and professionals in existence.”

So what’s with all the giving? Why are hard-headed MBA students, on eye-wateringly expensive courses, more than happy to spend their time doing good works?
The answer lies in the way that the boundaries between doing good and doing well are dissolving fast. In the past these things often seemed at odds with each other. If greed was good, then pausing to help your neighbour was just time lost from making more money. Now, though, the world has changed. Today’s MBA students know that global problems need cooperative solutions, that consumers want ethical businesses, and that many more people now understand that health and well-being are just as dependent on things like values and community, as on economic advancement.

“Business schools are recognising, and hearing from their customers, that we’re going to need a different kind of business leader, equipped with a different kind of attitude in the future,” says Mark Goyder, founder director of Tomorrow’s Company, a business-led think tank. “People are starting to realise that if they want to be successful in the longer term, what was done in the past just won’t work any more.”

David Grayson, director of the new Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield – a business school where last year’s cohort of students raised £80,000 for charity – says “Often students are ahead of the institutions. Quite a number now come in with a strong interest in what should be the role of business and business people.” At Cranfield, issues of corporate social responsibility and sustainability are now part of the core curriculum, while students are encouraged to work for the Cranfield Trust, an organisation which supports small UK charities.

“It is clearly now more important than ever before for businesses to align themselves to communities,” says Richard Slack, a principle lecturer in accounting at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, and an expert in charitable giving, who points out that the FTSE 100 companies give over £1bn in cash donations alone to good causes each year. “Businesses realise that when it comes to giving money away, if it is done strategically, in a way that is good for them, then it’s a win: win situation.” Tesco’s scheme for computers in schools is a perfect example, he says. In fact highly-visible, consumer-oriented businesses such as banks, brand names, mobile phone companies are now virtually obliged to be philanthropic. “To do nothing can be quite damaging. It isn’t really an option any more.”

And as today’s MBA students contemplate how the businesses they will be running will need be far more charitable than they have been in the past, so charities are, in turn, growing ever more business-like.

“An increasing number of students are now doing MBAs with the intention of going into charity work,” points out Salvatore LaSpada, chief executive of the Institute of Philanthropy, which promotes philanthropy in the UK and runs its own ‘MBA-style’ course on charitable giving. “They know that in the future they will need all the hard skills to do this. I predict that a decade from now we will see a sea change in the charity sector.”

'Social entrepreneurship had a big impact on me'

Alexander Blass, 33 loved doing an MBA at the Said Business School, in Oxford. “Honestly, it was one of the best times of my life. I left a position at an investment bank and wasn’t sure what direction I was going to take, but I met so many bright and motivated people and it opened up my mind to so many possibilities. Social entrepreneurship is highly emphasised at Oxford and that had a big impact on me.”
He returned to his native USA wanting to do well while at the same time creating something of value to society and has since garnered numerous awards for founding RealityCharity, a global online charitable giving and philanthropy community, dubbed by the US press ‘the eBay of giving’.

RealityCharity allows individuals and organisations to set up fund-raising appeals online, on web pages where running totals are shown, new information can be posted, and donors can leave messages for each other. So far 13,000 campaigns have used the site, and current UK-based ones feature the Church Urban Fund, a Lesotho orphanage and someone wanting help with her student loan. “What I wanted to do was apply social networking tools to the philanthropic process,” says Blass, “and our platform builds momentum. The more something is successful, the more it breeds success, and this allows people to move together towards a common target.”