THE BLOG
05/08/2009 08:35 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Is This The Best Time To Give Back?

Many people I know are waiting. But in these particularly tough times, can any of us afford to wait? If families in America are struggling with unemployment and foreclosures, can the rest of us await prosperity before helping? Can entrepreneurs wait for profitability before becoming active members of their community? And can companies wait for a better balance sheet before prioritizing societal responsibility? I am afraid that all of this waiting to give back is hindering our ability to move forward.

John D. Rockefeller was once asked, "How much money is enough?" He famously replied, "Just a little bit more." I am often dismayed, when talking to some business and law school students, by the way this attitude seems to color their sense of community and social responsibility. When only they're a little more secure, a little more certain, then they'll turn their attention to the world around them. They falsely assume that helping others is some sort of charitable pursuit that requires money and personal success. How much is enough? Just a little bit more.

Is it possible that we have this all upside down? I know that it seems counter intuitive, even an oxymoron, but maybe giving back to our world has to happen even before we have earned our money or power. Perhaps our eventual personal success is predicated on how hard we're willing to work beyond the obvious of our immediate self-interest; that the luck we're looking for is no luck at all, but a function of how much we're willing to add to the system.

I was recently asked by a friend, Glenn Llopis, to write the forward for his new book, Earning Serendipity: 4 Skills for Creating and Sustaining Good Fortune in Your Work. In the book, Llopis argues that rather than looking for a lucky break, an unlikely and unpredictable winning lottery ticket of life, we can learn to cultivate a consistent yield of fortune through an approach that includes giving what we can of ourselves. He calls this tenet (one of the "four leaves" of his model) adopting a "generous purpose," or learning to "share the harvest;" and it is part and parcel of learning to approach life with an "entrepreneurial mindset."

Fundamentally, entrepreneurialism is an attempt to solve a problem and then creating an organization to implement a solution. It is in our approach to this problem solving that we define the DNA of our careers or our enterprises; and it is at that nucleus--the stem cells of our careers, or our enterprises--that we must imbue this sense of generous purpose.

On the enterprise level, these ideas have already taken root. Corporate Social Responsibility, or 'CSR,' is increasingly playing a role in every day business planning. At its most basic, CSR means including the welfare of people and environment as a part of the business model; avoiding harm to the community regardless of legality. It is a term that has grown to include everything from sustainability in manufacturing practices, to cause-based marketing, to corporate philanthropy.

The good news is, I believe, that to the generation of millenials entering the working world - these ideas are commonplace and integral to their own philosophies. As Llopis points out in the book, generous purpose forms the core of some of the world's most successful and exciting companies. From Ikea's commitment to fair wage and working conditions in the third world, to Timberland's partnership with CityYear, the companies that our best and brightest want to work for are those that work to maximize their positive impact on both the local and global communities.

Llopis, in Earning Serendipity, argues that in order for this mentality to truly blossom we must learn to incorporate these ideals into our every day lives; and that when we learn to do so we will see both our personal and professional lives progressed and rewarded. There is a corollary, however unquantifiable, between the gifts we share with the world around us and the fortune we receive. When we mentor a child, or give guidance to our co-workers, we better the community in which we live and thus make for a more profitable existence.

As we slowly (and hopefully) come out on the other side of this downturn, we will surely have a different view about our future. If high levels of economic growth and prosperity will no longer be an assumption, this may be the best time to reframe the question. Instead of asking "How much is enough?" we can ask "How can I help?"