We may not have been its architects, but I think it is safe to say that my generation will be the Corporate Social Responsibility generation. We will be the first generation to come of professional age in companies with CSR divisions tasked with finding logical partner charities, "optional" company charity fun-runs and little icons reminding you to please think before you print this email.
At commencement last year, almost every speech addressed the seemingly blatantly false choice of doing good or doing well, and each speaker seemed to say more than the one before- The Peace Corps is my passion, but I've been peer pressured into Morgan Stanley. Do you think I'll make it out of the abyss? Such rhetoric struck me at the time as a relic of the culture wars of the 1960s that I never saw a shred of at Harvard, and made me wonder why such thoughtful people would be so quick to get on a stage and feel the need to atone for preemptive professional success.
I believe there are very few things a 20-something can do soon after graduation that can so ardently move the world in a better place than doing well for themselves professionally (varnished lingo for "make a lot of money"). I've worked at enough non-profits and political campaigns (insert self deprecating remark about how I now work for large corporations here?) to know that if they could make the choice between another brilliant Ivy grad to work an entry level position and having that person's first year salary in a donation, most would take the donation.
This is not to say that every enterprising venture capitalist or hedge fund manager one year out of college is going and dropping $30,000 on Amnesty International donations. But in this brave new CSR world, where 23 years olds are not supposed to be Gordon Gekko or John Lennon, but rather a fantastical hybrid of the best of both, that doing well is a more powerful option. Those who do well will largely be peer pressured into doing good, whereas those who choose to do good are at the mercy of their mobility- however far their talents and circumstances take them in moving to make the world the place they hope for it.
Some may scoff at those peer pressured into doing good, at those who attend a Doctors Without Borders benefit because they want to prove they can drop a thousand dollars on a seat at a table and get their picture on GuestofaGuest. To them, I say the mother in Namibia who doesn't have to watch her child die for lack of a five dollar drug probably doesn't care where the money came from, or why. That Amnesty worker in the DC headquarters? Once her rent, groceries, cell phone bill and student loan is paid for the month, she has approximately oh, say, four dollars left, and outside the sanctimonious ranking of the newly graduated and somewhat clueless, this does not make her any better or any worse than her banker friend from back at school who's happily clicking through his new society page credentials while his donation trickles its way to Windhoek or Kinshasa.
Corporate Social Responsibility, not called "non-profit" or "charity" for a reason- was after all born of the idea that a brand would develop a more positive connotation in the consumer psyche by leveraging the actions they were already performing in the world to the world's benefit, and that this would create value for the company and for the community.
So what about the vast majority of college graduates, whose lives are neither on physical humanitarian frontlines nor the rarefied world of derivatives trading, to do? The same thing companies that cared about the world and cared about themselves, did, of course, and combine another trend we all heard so much about- microfinance- with CSR, to something called microCSR.
I recently attended a fundraiser thrown by Amanda Hofman of Urban Girl Squad, and found her brand of CSR on a small level perhaps the most instructive. Urban Girl Squad is a group of women, headed by Hofman, who come together a few times a month to go on urban adventures-everything from wine and cheese nights to paintballing. But Amanda wanted to make sure that her values and those of her members were being fully represented, and also wanted to entrench Urban Girl Squad's brand as serious as well as fun. So she picked an organization close to her heart- cancer support community Gilda's Club- and partnered with Pure Yoga to host an Urban Girl Squad fundraiser with a ticket price of $45.
The evening had all the components of a successful CSR campaign. Pure Yoga, the yoga studio version of Equinox, is a brand already aligned with Urban Girl Squad's demographic of young urban professionals. The $45 threshold for participation was only a bit more than many members might have paid anyway to get a yoga workout at any studio in the city. And more than one new partnership was formed- Urban Girl Squad, Pure Yoga and Gilda's Club all benefitted from the exposure to each other's markets. (Oh, and over $2,000 was raised for Gilda's Club).
Our generation cares about doing well, or at least having the appearance of doing well, which more often than not has the net effect on the world of being the same thing. Our parties have prominent recycling bins. We post facebook statuses imploring our friends to donate to Haitian earthquake relief. We invite our friends to fundraisers as casually as we used to invite them to lunch. No, I don't believe that we all care whether or not the refuse of our night ends up in a landfill or the recycling center, whether or not Haiti's infrastructure is rebuilt or whether or not Cystic Fibrosis is eradicated or the New York City Ballet develops that after school program they've been meaning to. But given this, without the peer pressure of the CSR generation, would we all be better or worse?
Because our generation wants to do well, has been given the tools to parlay their success into charitable campaigns and sustainable structures and because it's now, essentially, cool to care, the world has been dealt a great hand. It's a hand I hope we all have a few more $45 fundraisers with, and spend a bit less time lamenting on commencement stages across the country.