Greed, Selfishness, and the Social Conscience

The nation and world have been rocked by financial troubles, most of which were fueled by greed and selfish behavior. An example of this is the recent sub-prime mortgage crisis in America that was fueled by the sale of credit default swaps. Mortgage loan originators working on commission preyed on unsophisticated home buyers by approving them for loans beyond their means using unsound credit policies and procedures. The companies they worked for then sold off the mortgages after collecting their fees, relieving them of the responsibility of servicing the debt. Those loans in turn were bundled into bonds that were sold to investors and later repackaged by investment bankers and reclassified by bond rating firms. When the housing market began to crash and those loans defaulted the investment banks and insurance companies that had to pay off on those credit default swaps began to fail or need bail outs. All of this was done in an attempt to make as much money as possible without regard to the client or the investor.

Not so long ago service companies were staffed with trusted advisors who were paid salaries commensurate with their expertise and experience so they could function in the best interest of their client and their employer. Instead 0f talking about share of the wallet and how much a person could be cross sold the conversations were centered around their needs. Sometimes that meant saying no to a request or even referring them to a competitor.

I have come to accept that I may have been naive in my perceptions as it relates to today’s business environment but I never thought I would see greed or negligence in the volunteer world. Unfortunately I was wrong about that too.

My entire adult life I have been involved in various non-profit endeavors. I have served on numerous boards, volunteered my time for various causes, and participated in a broad array of fundraisers. I will not deny that I made business contacts by doing those things, nor will I deny that I gained business relationships as well. But the impetus for giving my time was selfish in a different way. I enjoyed the work and I took great satisfaction that I was helping people that were sometimes less fortunate than me. I was proud to serve with some organizations whose efforts were designed to help to create a better working environment so that a person or familiy’s quality of life could improve, and others whose mission was more narrow or specific but targeted at a group whose needs and circumstances were dire.

I knew there were people who were on boards or engaged in fundraising activities for the “prestige”. I also knew that some were attention hounds that liked to be acknowledged or have their picture taken for the local media . I accepted the reality of that because all of the above were donors, so their ability to write a check offset my notion of what a volunteer truly should be. And the organizations needed cash so they in turn would do what it took to acquire a gift. Unfortunately I came to see the harm of that type of selfish behavior in a profound and personal way.

For those people fortunate enough to attend and graduate from college the experience is binding and intense. Your degree is a validation of your capacity and ability when you are too young to have demonstrated a track record in the real world. The more prestigious the college the more value the degree has. It is a recommendation that you are a person worth investing in.

You tend to assume that the people entrusted with the stewardship of an institution of higher learning will understand the magnitude of their responsibility. That they will do more than just write a check or attend a board meeting. You would hope that they would review reports, participate in strategic planning, ask tough questions when problems arise, or ask tough questions if there is the appearance of no problems, because that is their job.

When I moved back to the city in which my alma mater was located I was asked to serve on a strategic planning committee that was given the task of conceptualizing the path of the college over the next several years. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the process was flawed and unwieldy and that the college had massive problems. Infrastructure was decayed, student life and housing was in disarray, the finances of the school were problematic, and enrollment was down. The school was having to raise millions just to cover operational costs.

I won’t elaborate further except to say that eventually, after many painful and  uncomfortable conversations,administrative changes were made but the real culprit, the board of trustees, remained for the most part intact. In my mind while I maintain that the previous administration was inept, the fact that the board charged with overseeing that administration allowed it to operate without meaningful oversight was the real crime.

The spin doctors at the school are now attempting to brighten the picture. They claim to be one of the top colleges in the country. If your rank, assuming Forbes magazine’s ranking system is accurate, is 327 out of 610 colleges that to me says mediocre, especially if tuition, housing, and fees is in excess of $30,000 annually. I don’t blame the new administration, they are trying to dig out. But if the board of trustees is still composed  primarily of the same people who allowed this problem to occur in the first place, then the next question is what, if anything, did they learn? This is an important question because had they been serving on the board of a for profit corporation shareholders would have demanded their resignations as well as the resignations of those within the administration.

A strong community, state, or nation needs people with a healthy and moral social conscience. It needs people who give of their time, talent, and resources because they know that a rising tide lifts all boats. It needs people that take on responsibilities or accept appointments because they feel committed to the cause and recognize that they have unique talents that will benefit the mission. To volunteer or accept board appointments for reasons other than the above is probably selfish, possibly linked to greed in some way, but more worrisome is that it could lead to the very demise of the organization that they pledged to serve.

Greed is defined as the excessive desire to have more than what one needs. Selfishness is when one is too much concerned with one’s own welfare and interests. Neither greed nor selfish behavior can exist within a sound social conscience and certainly any organization pledged to do good works will have their mission challenged, if not totally compromised, if too many of their people possess those traits.

Our personal growth demands that we take a step back and evaluate what our priorities are. Greed and selfishness are part of the landscape of business and that will probably never change. But if it becomes embedded in the community of non-profits, charities, and higher education that will be a real tragedy.

* Some of my readers knew what entity I was referring to in the article you have just read. They made a point to tell me that some of the board members, including a high ranking one, did in fact support the school without a personal agenda and once the facts became known to them they worked hard to support a new plan that had great promise. These people  know who they are and I am extremely grateful for their sacrifice and integrity for what eventually became a losing cause. More to follow.

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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