The False Tradeoff Between Financial & Social Responsibility

September 2, 2010

There is a perception out there that there is a tradeoff between social responsibility and financial responsibility. You can’t do both, people say. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Well, very fortunately the data just doesn’t support that perception.

Can you actually be more socially responsible and increase shareholder value at the same time?

The Only Social Responsibility of a Company Is To Increase Profits for Shareholders

In 1970, Chicago-school economist Milton Friedman proclaimed in an article for New York Times Magazine that a company’s only social responsibility is to increase profits for its shareholders. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, and the Ayn Rand star-pupil Alan Greenspan turned this credo into de facto policy gospel.

There is passionate and meaty debate whether externalizing environmental damage and exploiting a work force is okay if there is no law or regulation against it. There is another debate whether these practices actually maximize long-term profits or the present value of future cash flows.

For a moment, let’s take this 1970 proclamation at face value and assume that an executive’s responsibility is to increase returns for company shareholders. Let’s agree that executives and board members do have a fiduciary responsibility to seek to gain a return on the capital invested in their organization, particularly if they work for a publicly-owned company or a company that is not a wholly-owned private corporation.

So this begs the question, can you do both–increase social return and increase financial return?

Can You Be More Socially Responsible & Financially Responsible?

Raj Sisodia, David Wolfe, and Jag Sheth recently published “Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose.” In the book, they share the results of a study in which they looked at companies that were especially socially responsible–they call these firms “Firms of Endearment” or FoEs. They compared the shareholder returns of these socially responsible firms with the S&P 500. What they found was that the firms that were socially responsible outperformed the S&P 500 by 9x.

These Firms of Endearment grew shareholder value 1025% in the last ten years while the S&P 500 returned 122%. Even when you compare the Firms of Endearment vs. the blue chip success stories profiled in Jim Collins’ Good to Great, the Firms of Endearment win. The firms profiled in Good to Great returned 316% while the FoE’s returned 1025%.” Here’s the graph from their web site.

Financial Returns of Socially Responsible Firms Vs. S&P 500 and Good to Great

Now, by no means does this data prove conclusively that more socially responsible firms create higher shareholder returns. The data show only correlation, not causation. The reality could simply be that firms that happen to be socially responsible happen to be in more profitable industries and so they can afford to give more to the community and create better work environments. But nonetheless, the point is clear– investing in being a socially responsible company certainly does not by definition go against shareholder interests and in many cases enhances shareholder returns.

iContact Case Study

Earlier today, I published a case study of social responsibility at iContact. In it, I shared the why and the how behind our social and environmental efforts at iContact over the past year including examples of how iContact has reduced costs and increased employee engagement through our efforts. As I wrote in the case, the benefits to date from our social responsibility efforts included:

  1. Vendor cost reductions of $40,000 driving estimated net savings of $19,000 per month.
  2. Increased employee engagement and excitement to be working at our company (which we believe will lead to greater passion in people’s work, additional discretionary effort from team members, increased productivity, lower regret employee turnover, and an increased ability to attract the best and the brightest).
  3. Increased customer acquisition and customer retention from customers who are coming to us and sticking with us because of our social responsibility programs.
  4. Additional press coverage from Entrepreneur, INC, and the Raleigh News & Observer that is helping us recruit the best and brightest and gain additional customers and partners.

So in fact, at least so far, we have been able to show both tangible and intangible benefits that connect the investment we are making in social responsibility with direct economic net benefits to our financial results and thus to the increase of shareholder value.

A False Tradeoff

While it would be nice to have even better data and employee surveys comparing before and after our work at iContact, there is substantial anecdotal evidence supporting a conclusion that in the case of iContact, increasing investment in social and environmental responsibility so far has increased profits, and will contribute very positively to increasing shareholder value in the many years to come.

So does increasing social and environmental responsibility always increase shareholder value? No, it does not. But in many cases it can and does and the Firms of Endearment study provides a fascinating basis for a likely connection between the most socially responsible firms and those who produce the highest return for shareholders. Investing in being a socially responsible company certainly does not by definition go against shareholder interests and in many cases enhances shareholder returns.

There does seem to be substantive and significant evidence showing there the tradeoff between social responsibility and financial responsibility is false and in fact social responsibility in many cases aligns with increasing financial profitability.


Thanks for reading. I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments on social responsibility, effective CSR programs, whether being more socially responsible helps or hurts a business,  and whether your shopping decisions could be influenced by whether a company is responsible or not.