Some people consciously act outrageously to help society break out of skewed values and unhealthy patterns. While folks like these are often regarded as eccentric--noble, perhaps, but still bizarre--years later people may point to them as pioneers of healthier economic institutions. We highlight a few examples of these below.
Breaking the Normal Rules of Business
In Brazil, where paternalism and the family business fiefdom still flourish, I am president of a manufacturing company that treats its 800 employees like responsible adults.... One of my first moves when I took control of Semco was to abolish norms, manuals, rules, and regulations.
Everyone knows you can't run a large organization without regulations, but everyone also knows that most regulations are poppycock.... So we replaced all the nit-picking regulations with the rule of common sense and put our employees in the demanding position of using their own judgment.... Most of them--including factory workers--set their own working hours. All have access to the company books. The vast majority vote on many important corporate decisions....
A lot of our people belong to unions, and they negotiate their salaries collectively. Everyone else's salary involves an element of self-determination. Once or twice a year we order salary market surveys and pass them out. We say to people, "Figure out where you stand on this thing. You know what you do; you know what everyone else in the company makes; you know what your friends in other companies make; you know what you need; you know what's fair. Come back on Monday and tell us what to pay you." Our people often make higher salaries than their bosses.
This may sound like an unconventional way to run a business, but it seems to work. Close to financial disaster in 1980, Semco is now one of Brazil's fastest growing companies, with a profit margin in 1988 of 10% on sales of $37 million.
Excerpted from "Managing without Managers" in Harvard Business Review by Ricardo Semler, Sept.-Oct. 1989.
Lending to Those with Nothing
One day on his way to work, economist Muhammad Yunus stopped to talk to a woman selling her wares. Struck by the realization that, despite her hard work and great determination, she would never get out of poverty without some capital to work with, he went to a bank to get a loan on her behalf. He was turned down, so Yunus himself loaned her $6 to buy supplies. She quickly increased her income from two cents to $1.25 a day, and now she earns three times the national average income. [The average per capita income in Bangladesh in 1988 was $179].
Eventually, Yunus gained the support of the Bangladesh government to start the Grameen Bank to serve those in greatest need. Since its inception the Grameen Bank has made loans to nearly two million poor Bangladeshis ranging from one dollar to several hundred dollars. In 1993, the bank lent about $25 million a month at rates far lower than the 10-20% a day charged by local money-lenders.
Instead of requiring collateral, the bank requires borrowers, often women who have never even touched money before, to meet weekly in small groups to support each other in paying the loans back, thus gaining access to greater credit, which Yunus views as a human right.
Struck that the bank's default rate is no worse than that of U.S. commercial banks (about 2%), other banks around the world are emulating the model in other desperately poor communities, giving people who start with nothing a chance to develop businesses essential to their survival.
From the Giraffe Project, a nonprofit organization publicizing the work of ordinary people who "stick their necks out" for the common good. For information about their newsletter or organization call: 206-221-7989.
The Most Expensive Service in America
In 1971, I started a free medical practice at home with a few friends. Our ideal patient was one who wanted a deep friendship for life. We refused to charge our patients or to accept third-party payments. We wouldn't carry malpractice insurance, and we emphasized preventive medicine and alternative therapies. Some people would try to pay by leaving money in books or under my pillow. But I don't want a relationship of indebtedness between me and my patients--if I knew who it was from, I returned it.
After a few years, twenty of us moved into a six bedroom house. We had up to fifty overnight guests every night, camped on the floors, in our bedrooms, in our hallways. Patients came from forty states and eighteen countries. It was chaotic. We had to have fun, or the staff would have left in a week. We were constantly celebrating, and we held dances twice a week. Not only was fun a glue for our community, it had overwhelmingly beneficial effects on our patients, who needed fewer pain medications. With a mixture of compassion and humor, we ran a Monty Python medical facility.
Those of us on staff worked outside jobs so we could practice free health care--for eight years I worked the overnight shift several times a month at an emergency room. In a sense we paid to see patients.
For the last twenty years we have been raising funds to build a 40-bed hospital that charges absolutely nothing. I'm confident in time we'll raise the $14 million we need. Then we can throw a pie in the face of greed by taking the most expensive service in America--medicine--and giving it away for free.
--Dr. Patch Adams
(portions of this were excerpted from his book Gesundheit ). For more information about Patch Adams' work and the Gesundheit Institute contact: 6887 Washington Blvd., Arlington, VA 22213. (703) 525-8169.
A Mothering Economy
For years I was outraged because I was reaping the benefits of a destructive culture which I could not change. It seemed that I could spend it on myself, "opt out" by pretending I did not have money, or I could give it to charity, which would only mitigate an extremely exploitative system--not change it.
I realized that I had to understand things better if I wanted to change them, so I devoted a lot of time trying to figure out what was wrong. (This in itself was a privilege because women have not traditionally had time to think.) Eventually I developed the idea of a "mothering economy" in which the other-oriented perspective necessary for nurturing a child would be extended to the society at large. With this vision in mind, I felt I finally had reasons to give my resources and a good direction in which to give them. Funding is another way of nurturing--with money-- instead of with food or clothes or love.
I began donating to projects where women and men were affirming the caretaking of Mother Earth and each other. In time I started The Foundation for a Compassionate Society, in Austin, Texas, through which I now employ 25 feminist activists.
The Foundation nurtures social change groups by providing and managing free or low-cost spaces--offices, retreat centers, and a media training facility. While we deal with many immediate problems (nuclear dumping in West Texas, issues of sexism, racism, etc.) we also promote women's perspectives through radio and TV.
Recently we held a national conference on the connection between breast cancer and nuclear radiation, and purchased land in Nevada which we returned to the Shoshone Nation. In all that we do, we promote the humane values that must be developed for the culture to shift towards a mothering economy.
Over the last thirteen years, I've given away most of the $20 million I inherited. I am grateful to have had the chance to be useful, and believe that by using my resources to protect the earth and her children, I'm giving my daughters a powerful inheritance: a better world and a legacy of ideals.
- anonymous author
For more information about The Foundation for a Compassionate Society, contact: PO Box 868, Kyle Texas, 78640. (512)268-1415.
May I Please Have Some of Your Property?
In the 1950's, a successor of Mahatma Gandhi named Vinoba Bhave had the nerve to go from village to village in India, asking wealthy landlords to open their hearts and make gifts of land to the poor. Over the years this voluntary "land gift movement" redistributed over a million acres.
Can the outrageous idea of voluntary redistribution be applied to the United States? Chuck Matthei, an experienced community land trust and affordable housing activist, believes it can. He and his colleagues are creating an "Equity Trust," inviting homeowners to pledge a portion of their profits to be paid if and when they ever sell their homes. This money will then be used to assist community development and conservation projects for the most disadvantaged.
The way Chuck sees it, sometimes only a portion of a house's value is rightfully earned by homeowners through their invested capital and labor for improvements. Increases in property value may also come from larger forces which owners have nothing to do with such as market speculation or a sudden growth in population. Chuck invites property owners to give back some of a serendipitous windfall by pledging a percentage of this "social appreciation" to the Equity Trust.
Less than a year old, the Equity Trust has already received several pledges, cash contributions, and outright property gifts. Some people may think it is outrageous to challenge the assumption that property owners deserve whatever profits they can get. However, most contributors to the Equity Trust view their pledges not simply as charity, but as something more complex and profound: an act of justice.
For more information, contact: The Equity Trust Fund, 539 Beach Pond Road , Voluntown , CT 06384 , (203) 376-6174. Note: The Equity Trust welcomes low-interest investments as well as pledges.
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