Business Ethics

Yes, Mormons Tithe, But Most Others Don't

Tithe box via http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4089420589
Tithe box via http://www.wylio.com/credits/Flickr/4089420589.

When Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney released his federal tax returns for the past two years, he disclosed that he and his wife, Ann, gave about 10 percent of their income to their church, a well-known religious practice called tithing.

In that way, the Romneys are typical Mormons, members of a church that is exceptionally serious about the Old Testament mandate to give away one-tenth of one's income.

But compared to other religious Americans, the Romneys and other Mormons are fairly atypical when it comes to passing the plate. Across the rest of the religious landscape, tithing is often preached but rarely realized.

Research into church donations shows a wide range of giving, with Mormons among the most generous relative to income, followed by conservative Christians, mainline Protestants and Catholics last.

Over the past 34 years, Americans' generosity to all churches has been in steady decline, in good times and in bad, said Sylvia Ronsvalle, whose Illinois-based Empty Tomb Inc. tracks donations to Protestant churches.

Ronsvalle's research shows that since 1968, contributions have slowly slumped from 3.11 percent of income to 2.38 percent, despite gains in prosperity.

In her view, churches have failed "to call people to invest in a much larger vision." She believes that explains why giving to missions, distant anti-poverty programs or faraway ministries has sunk faster than giving for the needs of local congregations.

A Bad Morality Play

The Dow Jones Industrial Average recently returned to 10,000—and Wall Street celebrated. At the same time, the nation’s unemployment rate climbed to almost 10 percent. (In my hometown of Detroit, it was more like 30 percent). The juxtaposition of those two figures—10,000 and 10 percent—was a moment of clear moral contradiction, and real moral clarity. The radical disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street was abundantly clear. A bad morality play was unfolding here, and when extravagant bonuses were announced for the top executives of the banks that Main Street taxpayers had so recently bailed out, an outraged nation was ready to change the script.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2010
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New and Noteworthy

The Alpha and Omega

Revelation is perhaps the most abused book of the Bible, often used by conspiracy theorists and imperial-minded governments as a divine handbook for how the world will end. In A History of the End of the World, journalist Jonathan Kirsch looks at the fascinating ways this Bible bookend has influenced civilization, from the apocalyptic literature of John’s time to the present moment. Substantial and well-written. HarperSanFrancisco

Inner Nonviolence

In Personal Nonviolence: A Practical Spirituality for Peacemakers, Gerard Vanderhaar marries the personal and the political by approaching peacemaking from the foundation up—that is, focusing on a spirituality of nonviolence. In a warm and conversational style, Vanderhaar asks what interior stability will we rely on as we resist and challenge the principalities and powers, and points to the life of Jesus. A good introduction to nonviolent living. www.paxchristiusa.org

Changemakers

The Social Entrepreneurship Series, produced by Ashoka’s Global Academy for Social Entrepreneurship, focuses on visionaries with ideas that have made a positive and effective global impact on social ills such as poverty and corruption. The 16-program DVD series includes interviews with Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, Peter Eigen, founder of Transparency International, and Alice Tepper Marlin, founder of Social Accountability International. dvd.ashoka.org

Rainbow Economics

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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Spinning Wal-Mart

Nearly two years have passed since the release of Saving the Corporate Soul. In my book I made a strong critique of Wal-Mart, particularly the way it mistreats its employees. At the time, Wal-Mart employees in 28 states were waging legal battle, accusing their bosses of cheating them out of overtime pay. In numerous independent incidents, supervisors ordered Wal-Mart workers to continue working after they had punched out on the time clock.

I recall two strong responses to this section of my book. Agents from Wal-Mart informed me that I had gravely misrepresented the facts and unfairly besmirched a proud company legacy. Social justice activists, on the other hand, let me know what a waste of time it was to apply business ethics with the likes of Wal-Mart. The retail giant, they said, was impervious to change.

A lot has happened in two years to change the terrain. Wal-Mart has come to terms with the fact that its public image is taking a nose dive. According to The New York Times, Wal-Mart hired a top-notch consultancy to gauge the consumer impact of its poor reputation. The results reportedly show that anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of Wal-Mart shoppers have stopped visiting its retail stores due to “negative press they have heard.” That trend, along with the prospect of Robert Greenwald’s hard-hitting documentary, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, reaching into a mass market, pushed Wal-Mart into a counteroffensive.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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Thar They Blow...

Thar They Blow...

Is there anyone in this country who doesn’t believe the recent hurricanes were caused by the oil companies? I didn’t think so. They probably used a standard off-the-shelf Hurricane Death Ray invented by a mad scientist. (You know the guy: brilliant, eccentric, still angry about having to go to the prom with his mother. He tested out of most classes in college then got hired by Texaco to develop a secret drug that gives auto executives a rash when they hear the words “better gas mileage.”)

To be fair, it’s possible the scientist isn’t really mad. Maybe he’s just a decent man who does evil things because oil executives tied his daughter to a railroad track.

Of course, none of this is mentioned in the recent full-page newspaper ad—“Progress Report from ExxonMobil”—which stated that the company is “working hard” to get their refineries back on line after the hurricanes. Oil executives even gave a news conference and promised to “get right on it.” But when they left the podium I noticed they were taking baby steps—you know, heel-toe, heel-toe—and smiling. Definitely smiling.

For its part, petroleum giant BP (an acronym for “Better PR”) promised to continue using the color green in its ads.

In the meantime, gas is hovering around $3 a gallon, a far cry from the days when my dad, before he mowed the yard, would send me to the corner service station with a gallon gas can and a quarter. “And bring back the change,” he would add, only too aware of the mischief an 11-year-old could get into with an extra 7 cents in his pocket.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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What those 'Low Prices' Cost

I'

I’m starting to feel a little bit of sympathy for Sen. John Kerry. Not because he lost the election. His wealth, his houses, and his safe seat in the U.S. Senate are consolation enough for that. I sympathize with him for having to go through the presidential campaign dragging the paper trail of a 20-year senatorial voting record. I’m starting to realize that if I write this column long enough, like Kerry, I may find myself on the record as taking every side of some questions. But the world keeps changing, and at some point a foolish consistency is just foolish, so here comes another flip-flop.

Twelve years ago, on this page, I mounted a backhanded defense of Wal-Mart against its "small is beautiful" critics. At the time, I identified with the cash-strapped condition that made so many Americans welcome those "everyday low prices." I also pointed out that, by locating in small towns where other businesses were already dying, Wal-Mart provided a common cultural space for middle America’s multiracial proletariat. I suspected that, with Internet shopping then on the horizon, the day might come when Wal-Mart critics would look back at it with nostalgia. Also, as a Southerner with small-town, working-class roots, I had a soft spot for Wal-Mart - as I did for Bill Clinton. For better or worse, Clinton was one of us, and Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, at least in the days of founder Sam Walton, was sort of ours.

That was then. Today I’m ready to join the ranks of all right-thinking people the world over in declaring Wal-Mart an outpost of hell on earth. In fact, the PBS Frontline report that aired last November - "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" - has me considering a personal boycott of the house that Sam built even though, where I live, that would make life very inconvenient.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2005
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Change, One Call at a Time

Ninety percent of Sojourners' readers share a common story of pain. At a moment (or two) in time, you felt the call, inspiration, passion, whatever, to change your part of the world. You wanted to do more than dream about it. So you started (or joined) a group of people driven by the same sense of purpose and began the search for potential donors. Enthusiasm and sacrifice fueled the project in the start-up period. But then—the inevitability of it seems cruel—we all hit the same wall. And we wail: Where are we going to find the money to pay for this work? Maybe it's time to explore other models.

Working Assets, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to political change, set out to create a radically distinct path for social activism. It runs a for-profit telephone business with $140 million annual revenue and directs a portion of its revenues to lobby for gun control, to derail policies that hurt the poor, and to promote peaceful alternatives to war, among other causes.

A multimillion-dollar budget for activism no doubt sounds compelling to any nonprofit director. But most social justice types don't like dealing with filthy lucre—although I guess it's okay to rattle the tin cup for it. So let's dive deeper into Working Assets' business operation.

"We measure our success not by the revenue of the company but whether we have a long and tangible list of political victories," says Michael Kieschnick, one of the founders and current president of Working Assets. The company needs to be profitable to exist, of course, but its donations are driven off its revenue. Furthermore, its political effectiveness depends not on its profits, but on the number of customers it can engage in its actions. So Kieschnick legitimately can claim that Working Assets is not a profit-driven firm.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2003
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Values that Succeed

Business leaders rarely talk about the values that shape the character of a corporation and make an impact on its financial performance. But they do exist. I consider the following eight principles the most crucial for corporate performance:

Principle 1: The directors and executives of a company will align their personal interests with the fate of stakeholders and act in a responsible way to ensure the viability of the enterprise.

Principle 2: A firm's business operations will be transparent to shareholders, employees, and the public, and its executives will stand by the integrity of their decisions.

Principle 3: A company will think of itself as part of a community as well as a market.

Principle 4: A company will represent its products honestly to customers and deliver service with dignity.

Principle 5: Workers will be treated as valuable team members, not just hired hands.

Principle 6: The environment will be treated as a silent stakeholder, a party to which the company is wholly accountable.

Principle 7: A company will practice balance and equality in its relationships with workers, customers, and suppliers.

Principle 8: A company will pursue international trade and production based on respect for the rights of workers and citizens of trade partner nations.

—David Batstone

Click here to buy Saving the Corporate Soul for 30% off the cover price

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2003
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Saving the Corporate Soul

"Think about how much of our lives we spend at work," the executive of a New York publishing house said wistfully to me. "Then consider how ambivalent—and perhaps a bit ashamed—most of us feel about the corporations that employ us. I know that I want my life to count for something more."

He is not alone. Corporate workers from the mailroom to the highest executive office express dissatisfaction with their work. They feel crushed by widespread greed, selfishness, and quest for profit at any cost. Apart from their homes, people spend more time on the job than anywhere else. With that kind of personal stake they want to be a part of something that matters and contribute to a greater good.

What is it about the corporation that makes joining it feel like we're making a bargain with Mephisto for our soul?

Nearly 50 years ago, my father launched his professional career in the corporate world, joining General Electric in a management training program. He then made a horizontal move to Union Carbide and finally fled the corporate world altogether a few years later to start a family-owned retail business. My dad had no specific conflict with the corporation, and, now in retirement, he wrestles with the what-ifs had he stayed and patiently climbed his way up the corporate ladder. At the time, however, my dad deplored the feeling that he was becoming just another number in an impersonal organization, a cog in the machine.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2003
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