Allen Harris, Berkshire Money Management (photo by Ben Garver, Berkshire Eagle)

Every once in a while you encounter an idea, a circumstance that harkens back.

It was my junior year in college in one of those requirement-filling classes that you never would have taken if you didn’t need it for your major. It was a course on decision-making, which analyzed human behavior from a psychological point of view. How we create our own cost-benefit analyses correctly and often incorrectly, like in the instance of such things like “sunk cost,” and how much should society spend to save a life.

The discussion on this particular day was “does altruism exist?”

Altruism, according to Merriam-Webster, is “1. unselfish regard for the devotion and welfare of others,” and in a more Darwinian-bent angle, “2. behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but benefits others of its species.” So, the unselfish animal bows to the selfish gene, but I digress.

But the question beckons. With this unselfishness displayed by we humans, there are endless possibilities how that unselfishness is actually not pure altruism. Isn’t there often a reward for giving or being “selfless?” Well, of course. It ranges from a major donor getting his or her name on a plaque, a wall, a building, and/or a tax deduction, to a pat on the back for helping an old lady across the street, or perhaps something that cannot be seen or measured as easily – a warm, fuzzy feeling. That’s right, the warm and fuzzies. Evolutionarily speaking, every emotion and feeling has some purpose, some reason – and so does this one.

That’s why I found the statements made by one local business owner so interesting. This man, Allen Harris of Berkshire Money Management, is known for his generosity giving to area non-profit and good causes.

And yet, he’s a shrewd businessman who unabashedly calls himself a “greedy capitalist” – in a refreshing bit of honesty and candor. After all, there are many businesses, particularly banks and corporations that make donations to good causes and love to take credit for it. And they are celebrated and thanked, generating a lot of positive exposure for themselves – it’s good for business. But with calculated tax deductions, giving is more often done based on an accountant’s directive than the kind heart of a CEO.

Allen’s alternative word for what I call the “warm and fuzzies” is “psychic reward.”

This term came at the recent press conference announcing that his donation would allow the city of Pittsfield’s First Fridays ArtsWalk, where downtown businesses host new monthly art exhibits on the month’s first Friday evening, to continue through to 2013.

Allen admits that he and his business benefits from all that comes with being the lead sponsor for this popular night out, and essentially keeping the event sustainable for the next several months. But, what was most interesting were his comments on the benefit of the ArtsWalk on a much deeper level, greater than just the pat on the back and marketing opportunities that come along with the role as lead sponsor.

It’s what he calls “rational altruism.”

Essentially, his business has a greater opportunity to grow being exposed to the demographic that “enjoys arts and culture.” He continues, “So, while I enjoy helping the cause, I also enjoy that the cause helps my business.”

So, in other words, a successful ArtsWalk is good for business – and not only his. And this is an idea that is also backed up by real numbers.

“My company and other Berkshire-based businesses need exposure to grow…I don’t look at it as funding – I look at it as an investment. By investing in projects and causes like ArtsWalk, I am investing in the longevity and growth of my own business.”

He went on to encourage other businesses to follow his lead and make sure ArtsWalk is a success into the future, because of this basic premise.

It’s a reminder that good business people heed the numbers and the evidence. Harris sees it in his own business, and it’s all been backed up with solid numbers.

Whether it’s true altruism, “rational altruism,” or not altruism at all – the real business people get it.

John Krol is president of OneEighty Media, Inc., a full-service marketing firm, specializing in branding, advertising, communications and web development.


John Krol
President of OneEighty Media, Inc., and lead communications consultant for this full-service marketing, communications and advertising firm. John’s extensive experience in journalism, broadcasting, public relations, government relations, SEM, community outreach and marketing provides a unique perspective for businesses looking to re-energize and diversify their marketing efforts. Read more...