05/09/2012 06:00 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2012

Philanthropy Mindset Hampers Sustainability Efforts

Are we so busy helping others to build their sustainability (environmental, social and economic) pillars that we're neglecting our own personal ones?

It is no secret -- in fact many take pride in knowing -- that altruistic endeavors traditionally pay less. Those working for not-for-profits accept that part of their income is psychological. However, the sustainability concept is not based on one of philanthropy. Sustainability is a business model that, to quote from the mission statement of the Sustainable Business Network of Washington recognizes and seeks to "transform the ways businesses appraise, engage, and enhance human, ecological, and financial resources" as a means to long term value creation and success.

Over the decade or more that I have been engaging in sustainability work it has been pointed out to me that many of the people working the hardest to build a sustainable business model -- those who are striving to help companies and organizations understand the need to balance the human, ecological and financial capital -- are not exactly practicing what we advocate. How can we say we are building a business model if so many of us building it are following the charity model ourselves? As we tell businesses that they can do well by doing good, how many of us are remaining content to do good without doing well?

I have talked to a number of sustainability/CSR professionals who have experienced the conundrum of being offered a dream job -- one that truly could be transformational in their career as well as for the causes we seek to support -- only to discover that the financial reward offered is not enough to meet their economic needs.

We're not taking care of our social pillars either. Companies that offer work-life balance and flexible work arrangements are considered more employee-centric and hence increasingly the employers of choice to a population that wants a better social balance as well. In some cases these needs may rise to a level that surpasses financial needs; such as the working mother or the single parent who needs flexibility in order to give their best to their children. It is ironic, then, when I run into people who work for companies that advocate and promote such arrangements for their clients, while their own business models do not reflect the same values.

Perhaps this is a reason why the preponderance of people I meet who are working in this area are younger, women or both. Perhaps these demographic are more idealistic. Perhaps they have, through societal constructs, learned to value the long-term perspective. Perhaps it is because young, single professionals have fewer (real or perceived) financial pressures? It may be that women expect and accept that they will continue to earn less than their male counterparts, and so they are more willing or able to take the positions?

Make no mistake, young people and women can and do transform the world. One need look no further than what is going on in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc., to see the pattern of people taking up the cause of self-determination and economic opportunity. We are seeing the transformation of a new world order in those countries as the old, traditional regimes and economic systems are proving to be unsustainable in the 21st century.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is: How long until there is a revolution in the effort to build a sustainable economic future that transforms the way we ourselves appraise, engage, and enhance our own human, ecological, and financial resources?