Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Do companies do well by doing good?

Posted by David Kassel on March 25, 2008

Three academic researchers have produced the most comprehensive review to date of 35 years of studies on a question that seems to have become more timely and pressing than ever—do efforts by corporations to benefit society also benefit their bottom lines?

A draft version of their paper, “Does it Pay to be Good?”, by Joshua Margolis, Hillary Anger Elfenbein, and James Walsh, can be found on The Economist website and has been discussed in The New York Times.  Margolis said the authors are continuing to revise the paper.  Last year, Margolis asked me to hold off in posting a blog entry about the paper, but yesterday he extended permission to cite the paper and post this blog entry.  He said he hopes to have an updated version of the paper by May.

The authors have so far produced an analysis of 167 studies, and concluded that, in general, these studies found there was a mildly positive relationship between corporate social and financial performance.

So, what does that really mean?  The attention to that question is the real strength of this analysis.

First of all, the authors note the stakes involved in the three decades of research they reviewed:

If only doing good could be connected to doing well, then companies might be persuaded to act more conscientiously, whether in cleaning up their own questionable conduct or in redressing societal ills….A positive link between social and financial performance…would license companies to pursue the good…

In 1970, they note that Milton Friedman laid down the gauntlet by criticizing any firm that made so-called socially responsible investments, arguing that such activities amounted to theft from the shareholders.  As a result, at least 167 studies have been conducted since 1972 to study the effect of corporate social performance on corporate financial performance, and there have been 16 reviews of this research.   Margolis et al. are the first to offer a comprehensive appraisal of all these studies, and to suggest an entirely new path for future research.

They found that most of the 167 studies did not find statistically significant relationships between corporate social and financial performance.  Yet, certain conclusions can be drawn from the studies, among them that companies do not appear to suffer financial harm due to socially responsible investments.  Only 2 percent of the studies reported a significant negative effect on financial performance in undertaking socially responsible activities.   This appears to negate Friedman’s warnings that companies that undertake these activities will destroy shareholder value in the process.

As the authors put it:

Companies can do good and do well, even if companies do not always do well by doing good.

And, on the negative side, companies that act irresponsibly and are caught, often suffer costly consequences.

Yet, the authors also note that the studies have shown that the next marginal dollar spent on a socially responsible investment is not necessarily going to provide as great a financial return as other types of investments.  Therefore, there should be reasons other than just the potential financial benefits for pursuing corporate social performance.  Those conclusions would seem to jibe with those of David Vogel, author of “The Market for Virtue,” who has argued that Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives are an “insurance premium” for businesses rather than a consideration at the core of a business’s processes.

In fact, Margolis et al. suggest that the studies they reviewed show corporate social performance is a legitmate activity that may not produce hugh financial returns; and yet, companies ignore it at their own peril.  The authors cite the case of Wal-Mart, which found its investment plans disrupted because its corporate and marketing policies generated so much opposition.

The authors further conclude that one of the most under-explored effects of corporate social performance is whether those policies actually result in measurable benefits to society as a whole.  And they suggest that it may now be time for researchers to stop trying to find a causal link between corporate social performance and corporate financial performance, and turn their attention to three possible questions for future research:  1) why do firms pursue corporate social performance?  2) how do they go about it? and 3) how can they pursue both corporate social performance and corporate financial performance at the same time?

In other words, the question shouldn’t be: do firms do well by doing good, but rather, how can firms do good and do well at the same time?

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