By Charles E. Dell (Founder of WJF)
The William James Foundation would have each of us be highly valued and have the opportunity to do his or her part in making us a society in which ALL its members share in its amazing bounty. But - we are experiencing serious troubles in the workings of our economy. There is a great and expanding gap between the wealth and incomes of the rich and the so called middle and working classes. Higher paid professional and skilled jobs have been disappearing. A disturbing number of high corporate officers have deceived investors and the general public with misleading financial reports based on improper accounting and questionable use of subsidiaries. Insider trading is not uncommon as are exorbitant executive pay packages. Large pension funds have suffered tragic losses because of bad management and corporate irresponsibility.
Certainly, most American businesses are ethical and effective contributors to society. Many large ones have for decades stressed "corporate social responsibility" and made it a mainline function.
There are longstanding issues related to greater corporate social responsibility. These include environmental protection, sustainable development practices, payment of "living wages", transparency in all corporate reporting, and optimum employee working conditions. The William James Foundation responds to this "state of affairs" by seeking out and supporting high-potential entrepreneurs who would form corporations committed - not just to maximizing the wealth of individuals - but to goals of social responsibility that should be imperatives for our time. The Foundation's long term objective is to infuse these "healthy corpuscles" into the economic bloodstream where they will prosper as independent businesses committed to a greater sharing of America's ever-increasing bounty.
This is the story of how I came to believe that businesses should be dedicated to the highest social responsibility goals. As one of many catalysts for bringing such a profound evolutionary change about, the William James Foundation would join the effort to restore confidence in business leadership and build a more resilient economy serving all stakeholders.
Underlying Economic Concepts: Studying economics at college in the late 1930s, I learned that a capitalist society in which anyone can start a business promises much greater freedom and productivity than neat, circumscribed socialist and communist systems. British economist Maynard Keynes made it clear to all of us that the flywheel of a healthy capitalist economy is robust and reliable demand. I believe that the best economic systems are those that draw out the energies and talents of the full working population and provide sufficient wages and salaries to ensure a substantial, dependable demand force. Sustained demand is best ensured by having widespread purchasing power in the hands of consumers who will use it readily and stimulate greater overall wealth production. In short, free economies function best when the so called middle and working classes get paid enough to support a good standard of living. It became obvious, too, that lower consumer prices (rather than monopolistic or patent-protected ones) sustain the general public's purchasing power, stimulate greater economic activity, and support a higher standard of living for low and middle income families. The lowest feasible prices are best.
Maladies in the System: However, in the recent decades I found that the gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor has been increasing steadily as has the concentration of wealth and political power. Too many CEOs have focused on increasing company stock prices, executive compensation, and, except for high tech firms, shareholder dividends, all of which contributes to unhealthy gaps in income and wealth. Many of the nation's most respected CEOs have become victims of the siren music of "big money quick". Not only did we see absurdly high executive compensation packages; insider trading became common practice as was misleading if not fraudulent financial reporting. Employee pension funds lost huge amounts.
Importance of Stimulating, Positive Workplace: After World War II, I worked at many different office and factory jobs in the midwest and finally in Washington, D.C. having done time in boring, inefficient, and highly controlled work situations, I came to have a keen appreciation of those rare working environments where talent, energy, innovation and cooperation are valued and rewarded. I came to realize also that the business workplace is where so many of us learn and develop our values about devotion to product quality, honesty in dealings with consumers, company loyalty, and respect for and cooperation with co-workers. Consciously or not, companies exercise great and lasting influence on personal and social values. The building, largely through leadership and training, of stimulating working environments is vital not only to production quality and quantity but also to the personal and professional growth of the people upon whom the enterprise depends.
On the Environment: Every year I have become, like most people, more aware of the environmental impacts of how we live and do business. I have learned that a greater and continuous organized effort by the nation's businesses will be needed to sustain and improve the quality of our air, water, soil, and food supply and to conserve diminishing natural resources.
Finding A Moral Equivalent of War: A major ideological stimulus leading to the concept of socially responsible corporations grew out of my experience more than sixty years ago as a member of camp William James in Vermont. William James was a philosopher and psychologist of the early 1900s who advocated a "moral equivalent of war" in the form of a universal conscription of young men who would dedicate a number of their formative years to national service. Camp William James, starting out in 1940, was intended to be a model for a new type of Civilian Conservation Corps camp in which both privileged and under-privileged young men would work together on locally generated community service projects. We were wonderfully energized under the inspired ideological leadership of Dartmouth philosophy professor, Rosenstock-Huessy. We believed that our work would lead to a national service that would strengthen the social fabric of the nation. Shortly after the camp’s exciting spring and fall of 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the campers’ devotion was directed to the war effort. The Camp came to its close.
Time for a Change? Out of my experience in factories, on farms, in business, and in government, the conviction emerged that there are many young people who will forego the singular pursuit of wealth to take on the challenge of being part of an evolution – that is also ‘a moral equivalent of war’ – happening in the mainstream of the economy.
The values of that evolution are expressed in corporate social responsibility goals such as the following which, briefly stated, are to:
- deliver high quality products and services to all consumers at the lowest feasible prices;
- create internal corporate working environments that stress ingenuity, collegial rather than hierarchical working relationships, the continuing professional growth of every employee, and reasonable - not excessive - compensation and benefits packages designed to meet family needs;
- aggressively improve and enforce environmental protection and recycling policies that apply to all corporation activities and products made or bought; and
- ensure fully independent audits and "open sunlight" reports of financial and program activities
Who Was Dr. William James?
William James (1842-1910) was an American philosopher, best known for his work "The Varieties of Religious Experience." WJF is named in his honor for two reasons.
- Dr. James did some excellent writing on expanding the definition of how one could be "of service" to your community. The William James Foundation's central mission is to expand how people can be of service to their communities through their work.
- In 1940 our founder, Chuck Dell, attended camp William James (also named for the philosopher) which brought together people from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds to focus on community service. That experience was so powerful that it was at the forefront of his mind 62 years later when he founded the William James Foundation.
WJF has no formal connection (other than permission to use his name) with the family and heirs of William James.
For for information on William James, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/james/