The Case for Selfishness

Want to make the biggest difference to the greatest number of people? For-profit work may be the ticket.

We live in an era in which selfishness is reviled. Individuals and corporations who aren't charitable are seen as uncaring, greedy, even evil.

It may seem strange, but a strong case can be made that so-called selfishness, as often manifested in for-profit work, does more good for more people than nonprofit work or volunteerism.

1. For-profit work, on average, produces greater benefit to the world. Trillions of dollars have been spent on nonprofit ventures from Head Start to drug-addict rehabilitation to third-world-development. Think, for example, about the billions spent to forgive third-world nations' debt. While noble, those massive efforts have yielded disappointing results. Certainly, the gap between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever.

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In contrast, think of how much benefit for-profit efforts have generated: from the company that built your home to the one that built your car, from the corporation that invested a fortune to create the drug you need to the one that produces the milk your family drinks at a price almost anyone can afford. Even the most mundane companies, such as those that make nuts and bolts, yield clear benefits to customers. Multiply all those benefits by the billions of beneficiaries around the globe and it's clear that the "greedy soulless" for-profit companies provide enormous benefit.

2. For-profit enterprises create more jobs. When a company makes a product or service that the world wants, not only does that improve quality of life, the company must hire more people.

3. For-profit jobs are better-paying. People who work in the private sector, on average, earn higher salaries and receive better benefits than those in the nonprofit sector. So, in working to build a business, as long as it's one that treats workers fairly, you're creating good jobs, thereby improving its employees' standard of living.

4. Most people work harder at things they'll personally benefit from. Nearly all of us derive satisfaction from helping others, but most people first and most often act from self-interest. That's why communism failed, why most people vote their pocketbook, and why nonprofits struggle with volunteers who aren't reliably productive.

So, even in non-profit work, when people work in their self-interest (for example, trying to do well so they get self-satisfaction, praise, a raise, or promoted) rather than purely altruistically, more work typically gets done, which means better or more cost-effective goods and services for the public.

Overrated Ways to Make a Difference

If your goal is to make the biggest difference in society, I consider these to be particular bad investments. They certainly are virtuous in their intention, but they won't help the greatest number of people. Yet so many individuals, corporations, and foundations do them:

  • Donating to an arts organization that needs your money to stay alive because ticket sales are insufficient. If the public isn't willing to pay to see a particular entertainment, it is saying it prefers other entertainment.
  • Volunteering your time to elect a political candidate. The odds are tiny that your efforts will put him or her over the top.
  • Donating to a college's or nonprofit's scholarship fund. It rarely enables a student to attend college who otherwise wouldn't. Usually it just means that instead of the government or college's endowment paying for it, you are.

"Selfish" Ways to Make a Big Difference

Here are some selfish investments likely to significantly benefit society:

  • Work for a for-profit company you believe in. Instead of serving soup to the homeless, put in a few extra hours a week at work. Focus on efforts that would provide a better or more cost-effective product or service, thereby improving the public's quality of life.
  • Invest in a company with maximum potential for making a difference, for example, a biotech startup with a promising approach to developing a better non-polluting car or to preventing sudden heart attack, the leading killer.
  • Be a mentor. Want to do something nonprofit? Mentor the people you believe most likely to abet the world who nonetheless could benefit from your counsel and support. I do that mentorship by writing, for example, this column -- and I'll selfishly make some bucks for it.

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.

Marty Nemko
Contributing Columnist,