Stakeholder engagement drivers – Part 5: altruism

In earlier blogs in this series we looked at self-interest and enlightened self-interest as sustainability and stakeholder engagement drivers. This post explores altruism as a driver.

It seems natural that business leaders who prosper seek ways to give back to the community. The survival imperative driving the earlier days of their careers may have prompted self-interested behaviours. As survival needs are met we move up the needs hierarchy. Maslow talked about self-actualisation – is altruism a manifestation of self-actualisation? Anthony Robbins includes contribution as one of six human needs.

We all have a deep need to go beyond ourselves and to live a life that serves the greater good.  It is in the moments that we do this that we experience true joy and fulfillment.  (Anthony Robbins from Personal Power II)

Altruistic enterprises come in various guises. They include:

  • philanthropic ventures initiated by the wealthy
  • not-for-profit organisations
  • profit generating organisations with an altruistic mission
  • social business.

Philanthropic ventures

Successful business leaders such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Warren Buffet have given millions. Bill Gates has set up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “dedicated to bringing innovations in health, development, and learning to the global community”. As these ventures typically target the disadvantaged, dealing with social issues, they are sustainable in intention.

Not-for-profit organisations

These are the most numerous of the “altruistic” sector. Many are strongly aligned with environmental or social sustainability issues. Most have strong survival instincts and devote significant effort to self-interest.

Profit generating organisations with an altruistic mission

Along with social businesses, these organisations have emerged relatively recently and have a clear sustainability agenda. The Grameen family of businesses established by Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus is a clear example. Founded in 1983 the Grameen Bank now has over 8 million members. The mission of the bank is “to eradicate poverty”. The bank spawned several other innovative enterprises that raise the quality of life and well-being for the people of Bangladesh.  Muhummad Yunus’s letter to members, on the eve of his forced departure from the bank, beautifully summarises the Grameen story. This video about Grameen Shakti illustrates the multiple benefits generated by a brilliant altruistic business.

Social Businesses

Grameen Danone was launched in 2006. This social business was inspired by Muhummad Yunus and is a partnership between Gameen and the French company Danone. It stands alongside Danone’s for-profit businesses as a “no loss, no dividend” company. Any profits are returned to grow the business. Social businesses exist to deliver social good. Grameen Danone produces nutrient fortified yoghurt at a very low price to relieve malnutrition in Bangladesh. Muhummad Yunus also drove an environmental agenda, asking Danone to produce a biodegradable, and then edible yoghurt container! Several other social businesses have followed. Here is Muhammad Yunus explaining the social business concept.

The recent development of organisations such as the Grameen Bank and Grameen Danone are, I believe, indicative of a shift in human consciousness to a more empathetic business model that looks beyond self-interest and recognises our interdependence. These are the early days – it is exciting to imagine what will emerge as more businesses learn to transcend the drivers of self-interest. Tell us about where you have seen these businesses emerging.

Stakeholder engagement – what are the drivers

If you want your organisation to engage better with stakeholders take some time to understand why. This blog explores three levels of commitment to stakeholder engagement – self-interest, enlightened self-interest and altruism. As with any classification system, these levels are arbitrary and could be endlessly debated – they are simply offered to stimulate thinking about your motives and drivers.

Implementing an initiative, such as stakeholder engagement is more likely to be successful if there is congruence between your thoughts and your actions. According to Sue Knight, our behaviours (what we say and do) are driven by the sub-surface factors of purpose, identity, beliefs, values and capabilities (see The heart of sustainability for more detail). So, for example, if you are just desperate to make money, and for your business to survive, your behaviours will reflect this.

Self-interest, enlightened self-interest and altruism

Self-interest: These are businesses that want to make money and survive – and that includes most business. But those who pursue this solely, will use any means within their ethical and legal boundaries (most of the time). Broader considerations are sublimated to the profit motive.

Enlightened self-interest: Businesses that want to make money and be more sustainable attempt to operate in ways that are not just financially sustainable, but also factor in the well-being of others and care of the environment. They look for synergy in these aspirations.

Altruism: These organisations are either established with altruistic missions or develop those as their owners turn from business-success to deeper motivations.

In this diagram, these levels are presented in a matrix. Notice that the self-interested motive persists in the other two levels – all organisations want to survive. And enlightened self-interest is compatible with altruism – successful businesses have more resources to give. Following blogs will look at examples of each of these levels of business and the behaviours they engender.

What drives your organisation?

Here is a series of statements based on the factors in the diagram above. They can be used as discussion starters, or for a quick evaluation of your organisation. If you want to add numbers:

  • 0 = my organisation is not like this
  • 1 = my organisation is a little like this
  • 2 = my organisation is like this
  • 3 = my organisation is a lot like this

Singular focus on profit: Our primary motivation is to contribute to a better world.

Transactional relationships: The success of our organisation depends on our ability to create great relationships with our stakeholders.

Public relations focus: Good public relations are important to us, but more important is open and transparent engagement.

Engagement focus: We see engagement as a core organisational competency that underpins our success.

Value chain:  We work with staff and suppliers to add value for both parties, valuing long-term relationships.

Sustainability aspirations: We are driven to maximise the triple-bottom line, for prosperity, people and the planet.

Values driven decision-making: Our values guide our decision-making – if an opportunity doesn’t sit well with our higher values, we won’t pursue it.

Driven by the greater-good: Our primary motivator is to contribute to the well-being of humanity.


  • 0 to 8: At the low range, your organisation has a singular focus on profit, if you are at the higher, perhaps your organisation is on the cusp of enlightened self-interest.
  • 8 to 16: Your organisation shows signs of enlightened self-interest and could well be on a trajectory towards sustainability.
  • 16 to 24: Your organisation is manifesting altruism.

There are clear examples of organisations in each of these three categories. We will look at them more closely in following blog posts. And I would love to hear of your organisation’s journey towards altruism.