So, I'm not using the term "philanthropic infrastructure" in what appears to be the standard way. I'm not referring to networks or organisations designed to facilitate or aid philanthropy. I'm talking about infrastructure by it's popular definition; roads, rail, rapid transit, water, sewerage, electricity, and so forth. Before I get on to that, though, I'll briefly make the point that many of our big private sector employers don't appear to invest in their own local communities. The best will invest in their employees perhaps, but probably not their wider surroundings. They're more likely to give money to or raise money for charities that will be good PR; kids, cancer, disabilities, that kind of thing. And there's nothing wrong with that, of course, because worthy causes benefit.
In the past, there's been good examples of big companies literally building communities; ones that spring to mind are Cadbury's Bournville and Lever's Port Sunlight. I'm sure there'd be a decent list if I were to research it. These days, we're not often building new towns and, in fact, we're not really involved in building at all. Most of our large-scale industrial manufacturing has moved East. Today's businesses don't have the same opportunities to fashion the environment beyond their own building. That, however, doesn't mean there are no opportunities and it certainly doesn't mean we no-longer need the corporate world to improve the world of its employees.
I'd argue that while big companies have a duty to raise money for charity, they also have a duty to invest in the locales in which they operate. The public sector, increasingly, will not have the funds to make improvements and indeed, in some places, there may even be a lack of will to do so. We should constantly be trying to get the most out of our public sector, of course, but we cannot rely on it alone to keep pace with the needs of our infrastructure. They, rightfully, will prioritise health, education and police.
Infrastructure isn't always overlooked of course and there is a history of large capital projects being used as an economic remedy in times of recession. Infrastructure is more than simply a temporary solution to an employment problem, however. It's the lifeblood of our cities and indeed our countries. People and goods need to move. People are more productive when they are less stressed. People are happier when they have a higher satisfaction in their surroundings. Good infrastructure isn't just good for plugging a hole, it's good for growing economies. Companies should view infrastructure as investment in the same manner as governments do.
We should be looking to improve philanthropic infrastructure, in the established sense, in order to promote and facilitate corporately funded urban infrastructure.
There's probably a contradiction here in that if companies see this kind of activity as investment, then it's not necessarily philanthropic. We can't expect capitalist organisations to have an altruistic undertone, after all. However, infrastructure improvements will benefit whole areas and potentially competitors too and that could make it qualify as philanthropy -- assuming such projects were handed over to local authorities or other independent organisations upon completion, and assuming the projects are more about progress than public relations.
Ultimately, the big private sector employers could and should be doing more to build upon their success with philanthropic investment in infrastructure, for the benefit of everyone. It's time to redefine capitalism and revisit the idea that profits should benefit the people.
Graham's blog: politics, poetry, and introspection