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For The Love Of Business

MFG Archive

David Bonbright provides a unique commentary on the state of American Business and its evolving potential. Is the divide between the social and private sector being bridged with new attitudes, and is Mark Twain’s commentary on ‘American Business’ at the turn of the 20th century more relevant than ever?


In order to avoid giving offense to living persons, Mark Twain embargoed his autobiography for 100 years. Among those he would have offended were America’s first titans of industry, the “robber barons” who were his contemporaries. From the man who coined the term Gilded Age, I guess this is no surprise. But what did surprise me as I waded through over a 1,000 pages of autobiographical sketches was Twain’s deep affection for business. In fact, what was most illuminating was how his surely ‘out-dated’ understanding of business is beginning to look more like the future of an integrated private and social sector. Given the role of Markets For Good in developing new information infrastructure, I hope the community will reflect with me on Twain’s philosophy, and just what it could mean for nonprofits.

The first point is that Twain was rapidly pro-business. It was his very affection for business that spurred his critique of the rise of the first American mega-corporations. In his lifetime, American business was local. It was rooted in actual communities. Its foibles and glories were a part of every day life. Whether business was greedy or kind, it had a human face, one that you greeted on the street. With the growth of US Steel and the oil trusts in the last third of the 19th century, this began to change. Twain hated this depersonalization of American business, and saw it as one of the most disturbing trends of his lifetime. He welcomed the landmark federal responses to monopolistic, anti-competitive business practices in the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Act (1890), but saw that Government was no match for the unstoppable force that was Big Business.

Maybe it is more Pangloss than Twain, but I see signs that American business – which today means global business, a business that is at once everywhere and nowhere – may be coming full circle in a way that Mark Twain would approve. While still far from being the dominant trend, some companies are embracing the full implications of what they are – what they mean for the environment, for communities, for the most marginalized people affected by their supply chains. They are doing so on the grounds that this is best way to remain competitive and successful over time.

There are three building blocks to this re-acquaintance of business with society: empower, engage and co-create.

The best companies empower their employees. They know that being a “great place to work” means catering to the whole person. They know that they will get the most from people by being responsive to their needs and interests outside the workplace. They understand that their employees are ambassadors for the company in society, and as such are the most important corporate asset in the company’s keeping its “social license to operate”.

The best companies engage with all their stakeholders. The rise of environmental and social reporting over the past 25 years has spurred continuing improvement of stakeholder engagement practices. The rise of social media has taken this to a whole new level and today we are at the cusp of a major step change. For the first time companies are adopting rigorous metrics for stakeholder engagement. Through new methods like Constituent Voice™, which builds on Net Promoter® consumer service practices, global companies can transform the social risk in their supply chains to social capital.

Now with constituent relationships harnessed, measured and managed as a corporate asset, it is possible to co-create with constituents. This co-creation ranges from “customer-sourcing” product development to pitching to solve important community problems. These co-creations create financial value for the company while also creating social value.

Mark Twain invested a fortune from his earnings as an author (8.2 million inflation adjusted US dollars) in several start-ups whose shortcomings forced him to seek bankruptcy protections. Despite being under no legal obligation to do so, he labored for years to pay back all his creditors in full. Could there be a better example of social responsibility for global business today?

Many thanks to David for sharing his love and knowledge of Mark Twain against the backdrop of the evolving state of global business, and how it interlinks with the social sector. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for updates on his work at Keystone Accountability and further viewpoints.

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