And I'm not the least bit ashamed.

This week, Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart, delivered a speech to his store managers called The Company of the Future. I urge you to read it.

In the speech, Scott sets forth a series of pro-social goals for the corporate behemoth. He says in effect, that with enormous power comes enormous responsibility. He illustrates that there's nothing but upside to using Walmart's market power to advance environmental, health care and other social improvements. And he ties those aspirations to the values and self-regard of Walmart's employees.

Ironically, the same day Bill Gates was giving a speech to a much more rarified audience in Davos, sounding a similar theme of “creative capitalism” and noting that the market could deliver far more resources to “doing good” than governments and charities. Cool.

But somehow, I think Scott's speech will produce more results than Bill's, because Scott is actually imbedding a responsible worldview in the fabric of his company and its rank-and-file. Gates is still leveraging his private wealth.

I write of all this because so many nonprofits are struggling with the issue of how they should relate these days to the corporate world. Should they bash corporate excess or harness market forces. Should they advance their missions via the powerful machinery of corporate PR and advertising?

To me, these are “no-brainers.”

The ultimate head-in-the-sand position would be to adopt an anti-corporate stance as a matter of principle. Sure, there are plenty of corporate bad actors … and outright villainous ones. Sometimes we should just sue the bastards!

But that's not a valid reason for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The power of the marketplace to effect change is stupendous … and undeniable. As just one example, soon or later — and I believe sooner — billions of dollars will be made by inventors and entrepreneurs working on alternative energy sources. And in so doing, they will have more positive and direct impact on our environment than any constellation of environmental groups.

Al Gore thinks he might urge students to lay down in front of bulldozers to stop contruction of coal-fired power plants. That's cool.

Meantime, over the last two years, with aggressive low pricing, Walmart sold 145,000,000 low-energy light bulbs, enough to offset the need for three such plants (while saving customers $4 billion over the life of the bulbs).

Do I want to see Walmart wade into these issues. You bet I do … warts and all (for any human enterprise bigger than say, two people — from the Red Cross to Walmart — will have warts). I have no problem with win/win situations.

Do I want to see nonprofits collaborate with the Walmarts of the world? Absolutely!

Corporate and market power is a reality. It behooves nonprofits to do everything they can to channel and harness that power. Public opinion polling by both nonprofit and corporate sponsors delivers a consistent message … the public is expressing higher and higher expectations that corporations must behave in a pro-social manner. Nonprofits must, forgive the expression, capitalize upon those expectations.

Do nonprofits need to proceed with caution? Absolutely.

They need to be very explicit about their goals in any corporate relationship, and totally convinced that the purposes of each party, though not necessarily exactly the same, are clearly aligned. Genuine, substantial program advancement must be at the core of the relationship. And of course, they must be satisifed with the core integrity of their partners.

So right on, Lee Scott! Today you get an Agitator raise … on the condition that you donate it to charity.


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