How do you find the right balance between charity and business? How do you be generous to someone yet make them feel like they have earned it? How do you be compassionate about one’s circumstances yet push be able to push them to reach their potential?
These are only some of the questions running through my mind on the first day of work at 31 Bits. Life in Uganda is tough and many have gone through things that are tough for most of us to even imagine. Decades of civil war and generations of poverty force you to try to meet them where they are at. But at some point we have to change the crippling mentality that the current situation is all that they will ever know.
Economic growth where the next generation has it better than the previous is all many of us have ever known but to many in Uganda it is a foreign concept. Years of relative political stability and moderate economic growth have helped to shed the notion that each day is simply a fight for survival. 31 Bits serves to add to the story that each day will be better than the last but this presents its own set of challenges.
Naturally we want to help where the need is the greatest. Not only do we want to help the poor but the poorest of the poor. Unfortunately those who are in greatest need often are limited in their ability to contribute in the workplace. Often this is due to illness or domestic violence or some combination. A business cannot be all things to all people yet in the context of a social business we often try to be. Compassion is usually first and foremost and the business is forced to work in those confines. People are not looked at for their potential to add to the business but how the business can affect them. This is not necessarily a bad outlook but often these ideas can be at odds.
A position can present itself, as it has at 31 Bits, where once a person is brought into the organization that person becomes wholly dependent on the company because they cannot function well in society. If that worker were to graduate from 31 Bits (as the goal is for each worker) that individual would certainly regress to their original state. It is a no-win situation for both parties. While it is entirely compassionate for Bits to take these people in, it can compromise the success of the company and thus limit its effect in the larger community. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it leaves the subliminal message that hard work is not what gets you ahead. Instead it implants the notion (one that is probably already there) that it is rich Americans giving you things that gets you ahead. That can be incredibly damaging not just to the business in a financial sense but also in a social sense. It may seem counter-intuitive but when compassion is our initial response to a difficult situation is can actually achieve less social impact than if we stand firm in employee standards.