You might have overlooked the full-colour insert in the Globe last week on corporate charity, thinking it was junk advertising. And in many ways it was.
The eight-page spread pumped the "Imagine" campaign for "corporate citizenship" funded by the likes of Michael Lee-Chin, head of the multi-billion-dollar mutual fund AIC Limited, and a stable of 10 white male post-middle-age CEOs who run banks, money management companies, retail chains, drug and oil cartels.
They're encouraging their corporate buddies to sign on as supporters of the "triple bottom line" or "sustainable development" or "corporate responsibility" - all different words, in their view, with the same "corporate citizenship" meaning.
The pitch comes off like the bland leading the bland. Society "isn't working at its best until all citizens' basic needs are being fulfilled," says Lee-Chin, while Michael Sabia of Bell Enterprises rings in with the idea that community building is important "because these are our communities, yours and mine."
To their credit, the campaign's backers aren't conflating corporate citizenship with sales gimmicks such as the co-branding encouraged by social marketing, a way of siphoning the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with opposing breast cancer or supporting juvenile hockey to a particular company.
On the contrary, the CEOs insist, they're talking about a "paradigm shift" that goes beyond disconnected donations and engages them "as partners who have a stake in community transformation."
The road to hellish social policy is often paved with such intentions.
There's no question that charities and voluntary organizations have become formidable items in the policy world. For the first time, a good hundred years late in paying proper respects, StatsCan released the numbers in September on a sector it calls the "cornerstone of community."
There are 161,000 such organizations across the country with a total membership of 139 million. They are active in every sphere of life, from recreation to religion to culture to social service delivery to environmental education and advocacy. Leaving out hospitals and universities, the sector earns $75 billion in revenues and donations and employs about 1.3 million people. It also draws on 2 billion volunteer hours a year - the equivalent of a million full-time jobs.
The government's decision to take note of these figures might indicate that it's finally ready to admit this work has value and really counts.
If only this were true. Governments haven't yet seen their way to treating charities and voluntary orgs as they do businesses. In today's world, a natural resource company goes to see Industry Canada or Natural Resources Canada to get its subsidies. Meanwhile, a voluntary human resource organization lines up at a social service ministry to get an occasional grant. If treatment were even-handed, if revenues were counted as revenues and jobs created were counted as jobs created, the voluntary organizations would be meeting with the flush industrial ministries while the resource companies would be in the welfare line where they belong.
Such reframing will come in the fullness of time. But in the short term, a proactive government might recognize that orgs that inspire the equivalent in person-hours of a million jobs have what corporate and government economics officials like to call "leverage." To encourage such leverage, governments could recognize hours donated as having at least the same impact as money donated, and issue tax deductions.
Since politicians like to talk about how volunteers play crucial roles in a community while also building their own personal, technical and professional skills, they might offer volunteers the same help they give people in the business sector - a tax incentive. Coming soon to a community near you.
It's a statistical annoyance but a helpful historical reminder that StatsCan includes hospitals in the community voluntary and charitable sector. Before medicare, hospitals were classed in the charitable sector. Caring for the sickly and poor is what charity was for in the olden days. Medicare created a social revolution in that health care was removed from the charity sector and reclassified as a human right, to be guaranteed and provided by government.
Oddly, the same transition has not been made when it comes to health promotion and disease prevention. Organizations that support physical activity, commonly recognized as crucial to disease prevention, remain in the charitable sector. The same is true for food banks, which distribute goods that are indispensable to health and well-being. There's a lot of work to be done deciding what actually belongs in the charity rather than rights sector.
But it's unlikely that big businesses have gotten into charity promotion as a way to support such a redefinition.
One problem is that CEOs usually don't know much about social policy issues - not to mention their lack of humility about their ignorance. Nor do they have the stamina to tackle tough problems. In the Globe insert, there are four colour photos. All feature angelic kids who are getting some growth opportunity thanks to corporate philanthropy.
There's not a street youth, skid row drunk, cranky senior, abused wife, unemployed high school dropout or underpaid middle-aged mom in the lot. Woe to those denied membership in the Flavour of the Month Club when corporate CEOs decide community priorities.
The very idea of "corporate citizenship" betrays a mindset that is ignorant of democracy. In our system, individuals have rights and are citizens. Families, churches and corporations are not citizens. That's why we can restrict the free speech of corporations by banning cigarette ads or limiting the size of corporate political donations.
There are strong reasons why property rights aren't specified in Canada's Charter Of Rights And Freedoms, because corporatism - the belief that groups have rights akin to citizens - has been historically linked to anti-democratic, sometimes fascist, causes. The soft sell of charity doesn't change that.
Still, there are many ways for CEOs, as individuals and business leaders, to contribute to social betterment. They can pay their workers a living wage, a tradition that underlies the social security system set up in Canada after the second world war. These days, public policy makers assume this level of pay is still in effect, but they are mistaken. Minimum-wage workers no longer make a living wage, says a Canadian Policy Research Network document prepared for a conference this week on Canada's "social architecture."
CEOs can also ban "voluntary" and paid overtime, in view of last week's Public Health Agency of Canada report slamming anorexic corporations for overtime practices that are overwhelming the public health system with stress-related disorders. This form of public subsidy to corporate malpractice should lead to corporations getting the same harsh treatment as any low-income welfare cheats.
And business executives could also practise what Jewish scholar Maimonides many centuries ago called the highest degrees of charity and help others become self-supporting by giving without making their identity known. This practice is encouraged by progressive taxation - which corporations conscious of their community obligations should be the first to support.