Craig P. Dunn


Publications: Full Text Version

Burton, B.K. &
Dunn, C.P.
Stakeholder Interests and Community Groups: A New View. International Association for Business and Society Annual Meetings, 1996.

This paper applies an emerging area of thought regarding stakeholder theory to relationships between firms and local volunteer organizations. This area of thought, grounding stakeholder theory in feminist theory, leads to a view of managers as caring persons, wishing to help the myriad local organizations in all ways. The paper concentrates on allowing employees to do volunteer work with organizations they care for, using release time if the need arises.

The concept of stakeholder has been used in several different ways. Those who rely on economics in explanations and prescriptions of firm behavior view stakeholders as having an instrumental value, of helping a firm achieve it's objective of maximization of shareholder wealth (eg., Ansoff, as cited in Freeman [1984]). Others have rejected this reliance on economics in theorizing about the behavior of firms, instead arguing that morality must be the basis for a firm's behavior. Two versions of this argument are common. One, the utilitarian version, again views stakeholders as having instrumental value, as helping a firm achieve another objective (eg., Tuleja [1985]; Finlay [1986]). The second, the deontological version, relies on Kantian ideas to give stakeholders intrinsic value (eg., Gray & Hay [1986]; McCann & Gray [1986]; Kilpatrick [1985]). As a result of this, firms must then recognize a duty to those stakeholders, that duty to ensure that their rights as entities are not violated.

Each of these uses of the stakeholder concept contains a kernel of truth. But none provides sufficient grounding for a model of stakeholder empowerment. In fact, traditional moral theory has been examined and found wanting (Dunn, 1990; Dunn and Brady, 1995). Utilitarian theory equates individual happiness with societal good and calculates societal good based on the pleasure and pain individuals may receive from the consequences of a decision. Kantian theory gives individuals value in themselves but looks at others in a detached, rational, abstract fashion. Stakeholder theory, in contrast, examines individual preferences and attempts to satisfy as many of those preferences as possible, with the understanding that these individuals, and the groups they form, have particular relationships with the firm and each other and cannot necessarily be looked upon with Kantian detachment. This paper gives such a grounding, using as an example social organizations operating within the community in which the firm operates.

As we examine stakeholders besides shareholders, we see various groups being highlighted by stakeholder theorists. For example, Freeman's (1984) listing of stakeholders includes such diverse constituencies as owners of various kinds, supplier firms, customer segments, employee segments, various members of the financial community, several levels and branches of government, consumer advocate groups and other activist groups, trade associations, political groups, unions, and competitors. Brenner and Cochran (1991) form a diagram with such stakeholders as stockholders, wholesalers, sales force, competition, customers, suppliers, managers, employees, and government. Hill and Jones (1992) list managers, stockholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and creditors. Clarkson (1995) lists the company itself, employees, shareholders, customers, and suppliers as primary stakeholders, with the media and various special interest groups classified as secondary stakeholders. Donaldson and Preston (1995) diagram investors, political groups, customers, employees, trade associations, suppliers, and governments. By consensus, stockholders, employees of all types, suppliers, customers, governments, competitors, and activists groups can be considered stakeholders. Also typically included are the entities "community" (Brenner and Cochran, 1991; Donaldson and Preston, 1995; Hill and Jones, 1992), "general public" (Hill and Jones, 1992), or "public stakeholders" (Clarkson, 1995), as well as the natural environment (Buchholz, 1993).

There are two general classes of methods by which firms can help these groups. First, a group can be helped financially. Many examples of this methods come easily to mind. A firm can buy a supplier's products, provide good financial value to its customers, pay high dividends to its stockholders, give its employees pay increases, pay taxes to federal, state, and local governments, make investments in financial institutions with excess cash, and make contributions to various types of activist groups. Second, decisions can be made that help the stakeholder or at least prevent harm from coming to the stakeholder. These decisions may be to play by the rules of the game, adhere to legal contracts, or act on complaints or pressure brought to bear on the firm. However, neither method directly or intentionally benefits that amorphous stakeholder called "the community"--although it might well be argued that there is a "trickle-down" effect which does, however unintentionally, serve to advantage "the community." What does it mean to give money to "the community"? It cannot mean taxes, for that money goes to local governments. It cannot mean contributions, as they go to local charitable and activist organizations. And what rights does "the community" have vis-a-vis the firm? There is no legal contract drawn up with "the community," unless one considers the implicit social contract discussed most often by Donaldson (e.g., Donaldson, 1982). But with whom is this social contract drawn up? It is either one contract drawn up with the community at large, which seems incapable of fulfillment (because different members of the community will have different interests), or it is actually many different contracts drawn up with many members of the community, in which case the idea of "the community" is useless in any real analysis.

However, recently several researchers have put forward an alternative approach to stakeholder theory (Burton and Dunn, 1993, 1996; Dobson and White, 1995; Wicks, Gilbert, and Freeman, 1994). This approach relies on feminist philosophy for its grounding, and as such it gives emphasis to different conceptions of the firm's relationship to stakeholders than traditional stakeholder theory usually holds. The nature of this relationship can be discussed in two necessary steps. First, relationships are considered an essential part of the firm, as opposed to being contractual in nature. No longer are the relationships between a firm and its stakeholders considered in legal, contractual terms, or even in terms of power relations. Instead, a firm and its stakeholders are related to each other as part of their very existence; a firm's relationships constitute a part of that firm. Second, this conception of stakeholder theory includes a caring approach to stakeholders. Instead of the managers of a firm asking a stakeholder, "What can we do to keep from harming you and thus keep our contract?" the question should be, "What can we do to help you prosper, to act on our caring for you?" This conception of the relationship as caring in nature takes us far afield from the contract relationship typically used. Contracts have no caring dimension; instead, they are merely legal documents giving the rules of exchange. Contracts limit our liability, as opposed to expanding it, as caring might. Contracts require 'consideration' or 'reciprocity,' while caring relationships do not necessarily imply this.

An approach to stakeholder theory based on feminist philosophy emphasizes a firm's responsibilities to all stakeholders instead of a conflict between the rights of shareholders versus the rights of non-shareholder stakeholders. Instead of trying to balance the rights of one stakeholder group against those of another, or make decisions based on power relations, managers would care for all stakeholders and use a rule such as, "Care enough for the least advantaged stakeholders that they not be harmed; insofar as they are not harmed, privilege those stakeholders with whom you have a close relationship" (Burton and Dunn, 1996). A rule such as this one places relationships at the heart of the decision process and emphasizes the firm's responsibilities to all stakeholders, those who are least advantaged as well as those with whom the relationship is particularly close.

Feminist philosophy also brings with it an emphasis on the concrete in life rather than the abstract, on the particular rather than the universal. This must be true, for feminist philosophy rejects the reliance on rationality and individualism found in most traditional ethics. Given that relationships are inherent in our existence, we have relationships to particular individuals and groups. It is on these particular individuals and groups that we focus our attention, not on some abstract idea of an individual or group that might exist such as "suppliers" or "customers." We have relationships with real, concrete suppliers and customers, suppliers and customers that can be separated from one another and identified.

Through this set of lenses, we see clearly that an ambiguous reference to "community" or "general public" will not do in discussions of stakeholders. Communities are composed of many different individuals and many different groups, and they are not all the same. Lumping them together makes us trend toward the abstract and universal. "We can serve the community by giving money to the United Way" provides an example of such an unsatisfactory reference. The United Way distributes funds to several groups within a community. Already we are far from the notion of a "community" as a single entity. The United Way must allocate funds in some manner; it may not allocate funds in the manner we would like. Other worthy charities are also part of the community but are not under the United Way umbrella. They may be more important in our eyes than the charities serviced by the United Way, but if we give to the United Way exclusively, they will not receive any donations from us. Certainly the charities serviced by the United Way benefit, but what about the constituencies served by the other charities? Will they benefit from our donations? It can be seen that a particular donation does not benefit the "community" as a whole, except in some sense by which when part of the community is helped all of those who compose the community benefit indirectly. But really the people who benefit are those involved with or served by the United Way organizations. Other groups and individuals may actually be harmed, because other charities may be in greater need of funds than the United Way charities.

If what benefits one stakeholder within the community may harm another, it makes no sense to lump them together as is done by many traditional theorists. And given Freeman's (1984) definition of stakeholder as "any group or individual who can affect or is affected by the achievement of the organization's objectives" (p. 46), all groups in an area in which the firm operates and all individuals in such an area are stakeholders. Although it may be true that individuals in the community cannot easily affect the achievement of an organization's objectives unless they are also in another category of stakeholder, such as an employee or a manager, or to the extent that they can gain power through "organizing" (eg., unionization) or through affiliation with a more powerful stakeholder group, certainly anyone living in a community where an organization operates might be affected by an organization's operating decisions--which can affect pay rates, employment levels, even the presence of the organization in the community. Groups within the community are affected as well, and groups may have more potential to affect the organization's decisions through the increased power that comes from unified action. For example, several owners of small retail businesses may individually approach a large industrial firm operating in the area about a donation for the town's Little League baseball field without getting anywhere. However, if they join forces under the umbrella of the area Lions or Rotary clubs, they may have a greater chance of getting the firm, some of whose managers no doubt belong to the club in question, to donate some money to the project. Given the differential effects that individuals and groups may have on the firm, and that the firm may have on those individuals and groups, such possible stakeholders need to be separated from one another in discussions and decisions.

Viewing the individuals and groups in a firm's area of operations as separate, concrete stakeholders vastly increases the complexity of managing according to stakeholder theory. The stakeholder concept itself is already more complex than traditional strategic management theories, such as Porter's (1980) "Five Forces" conception of competitors, suppliers, buyers, potential entrants into the market, and makers of substitute products as affecting the competitiveness of the industry. Stakeholder theory, as more "macro" in orientation, will naturally include more possible "forces" that the firm must consider in making decisions. The various discussions of stakeholder theory give us varying degrees of complexity. But even the most complex--that of Freeman (1984), who lists 12 categories of stakeholder and typically several stakeholders in each category--cannot begin to compare in complexity with the conception of stakeholder outlined in this paper. Freeman, for example, lists under "Activist Groups" such entities as safety and health groups, environmental groups, "big business" groups, and single issue groups. But even that list is a taxonomy of categories rather than specific stakeholders. And the tendency of other stakeholder theorists is to create fewer categories rather than more. Of primary concern to this paper is the notion of "community" or "general public" used by most stakeholder theorists. No longer can a simple "community" be considered. Instead, the firm's managers must consider the local school board, the local United Way, the individuals who are helped by the United Way, all the organizations under the United Way umbrella, as well as myriad other church, social, and activist organizations within the area, local businesses and governmental organizations, and the individuals who make up all these groups--as well as individuals who aren't a part of any group but still live and work within the area.

Think, for example, of a city of about 50,000 people, in which is located a relatively large industrial firm. In Porter's analysis, the community possibly would contain some suppliers, buyers, competitors, potential entrants, and makers of substitute products. This is not necessarily the case, however, so this narrow strategic allowance may include no one from the city. Stakeholder theorists may find some groups within the community fit their generic categories, and they would lump the rest of the groups and individuals in the city into the "community" category. Conducting a stakeholder analysis as described in this paper, however, would lead to not a couple of dozen stakeholders, but more than 50,000 (in theory), because all individuals in the community are potential stakeholders, and the groups they form are potential stakeholders, and to those we must add the stakeholders that all theorists would identify--customers, employees, stockholders, and so forth. In practice this number would drop some, for some in the community would not affect or be affected by the firm, but the number would still be very large in relation to the numbers generated by other analyses.

Not only does the number of groups increase almost exponentially, but the moral landscape changes when stakeholder theory is grounded in feminist philosophy. Instead of seeing to the groups' rights, the firm's managers are admonished to care for the groups. The definition of caring in this case is to have regard or a special preference for a stakeholder, to be concerned for its well-being, to look out for its best interests, to have empathy for it, to want it to succeed. This is a qualitatively different type of interest than the legalistic, rights-based interest discussed in most literature written on stakeholder theory. Nothing in the definition of caring suggests the concept of rights or even that of deontological obligations. Instead the conception is of positive actions by the caregiver that will help the cared-for. The caregiver's interest is not in maintaining the terms of some contract, whether explicit or implicit. Rather, the caregiver's interest is in the vitality of the cared-for. Instead of attempting to ensure that no stakeholder's rights are violated, the caring managers will understand the needs of various stakeholders and attempt to help them as much as they are able. As mentioned earlier, the change is from the outlook, "What can we do to keep from harming you?" to "What can we do to help you prosper?"

Indeed there are obligations involved in caring. However, those obligations or duties are self-imposed. If the caring individual wishes to care for a particular other with whom he has a relationship, he will perceive a duty to that person, but it is not a Kantian duty imposed from an outside agency. The fact that the person cares about the other leads him to feel the need to act in a caring fashion. And this caring is not given equally to all with whom the caring person has a relationship. The amount of caring felt will determine the amount of duty given. It is possible that one can care deeply for a person yet feel no duty, as with the object of unrequited love. However, this sort of relationship is unstable at best. In any stable relationship, the amount of caring and the duty felt will be positively related.

Local groups such as the United Way, the school board, and community organizations of many kinds should be viewed as essentially the same as the business-related stakeholders such as suppliers, employees, unions, customers, and competitors. However, they typically are viewed as different by the casual observer. Business-related stakeholders have instrumental value to the firm that is apparent to any observer. Non-business local groups seem to have little instrumental value. Perhaps it is for this reason that the stakeholder literature has largely concentrated on business-related stakeholders in its discussions. In economics-based models of the relationships involved in doing business, goods are exchanged. Groups or individuals that have no goods to exchange are not important, because rational, economic persons will not give up something for nothing, or something of much less value than what is being given up. People enter into exchanges in economic models because they feel they gain from the exchange. Social contract models also portray an exchange as taking place. The parties are entering into a legalistic contract specifying each party's rights and obligations, and neither side would enter into such a contract if it did not feel the other side had something to give in return for its giving up some aspect of its existence. "You get something, and I get something in return" is a phrase that can describe these relationships. They can be entered into at any time, and they can be cut off (within certain legal restrictions) at any time as well. Whether the relationship at some level is unavoidable, as with local groups, is not important.

In a caring world, however, instrumental exchange and legalistic relationships are not the only, or even the primary, sort of relationships. As mentioned earlier, all relationships are fundamental. To care, one must have another object to care for. As caring is an essential part of our nature, according to this philosophy, so are relationships. Local, non-business groups have similar essential qualities to business-related groups. In a world of essential relationships, all groups are interdependent. For example, a supplier and the firm it supplies are interdependent; so are the firm and the local United Way. These relationships are different instrumentally, but they are the same in their essentials. Both relationships are essential to all parties' survival in that each party has resources the other party needs. These resources may be similar instrumentally (monetary resources) or different (keeping secrets versus goodwill within the community, for example). But all of them improve the organizations toward which they flow, giving them an essentially similar character.

Under a caring interpretation of stakeholder theory, not only are all relationships essential; the basis of the relationships is different. The relationships are based not on resources, but on caring. The interdependence of these groups does not lead to power-based relationships. In a rights-based, legalistic world, dependence leads to power. If one entity is dependent on another, the second entity gains power over the first. But under the current approach a relationship exists not because one group has resources and another group needs resources, but because the groups themselves exist in some sort of proximity, whether geographical or otherwise. These groups (or individuals) will care for each other. A caring entity with resources, as part of its concern for the cared-for, will desire to share resources with the cared-for as part of its attempt to satisfy the needs of the cared-for. Power is not relevant. The instruments the caring entity uses in this attempt may not always be the same, as seen above. Also, the means may not always be immediately available, which means the caring entity may not be able to fully satisfy the needs of the cared-for. But the caring entity will always work to attempt to satisfy those needs.

These needs can be of two kinds. First, they can be financial in nature. Certainly these groups need financial resources to survive. These resources do not have to be in the form of cash. Instead, they can take the form of money, investments, or in-kind contributions. They can be tailored to a specific group's needs. For example, a student group may need space in which to set up tables for a bake sale. Normally in the marketplace, space costs money in the form of rent. However, a grocery store can (and often does) donate space it owns to the student group so its bake sale can proceed. This is in effect an in-kind donation of financial resources, "paying" for the space that would otherwise need to be rented. A different community group may actually need office space, and a similar in-kind donation in the form of rent-free or low-rent space may come from a corporation. Some groups also will accept donations of investments, such as bonds or money for an endowment, that have a longer-term payoff for the group. Equipment, such as computers, desks, file cabinets, and the like, is also a likely financial-type donation.

However, much of a voluntary community organization's work is done by volunteers. Examples of this type of work include accounting in a small organization, strategic planning when accomplished by a volunteer board, oversight of the administrators, some fund raising and membership activities, perhaps advertising campaign work, and so forth. Obviously, depending upon a group's size, some of these tasks will be accomplished by staff. But, if for nothing else than membership on a group's board of trustees, volunteers will be needed. These volunteers must come from somewhere. But in today's society, an increasing percentage of potential volunteers work. And at least some of the work that must be done by volunteers will occur during the week, when most working people are on the job.

The need is not only for warm bodies, but for people with certain expertise--technical or administrative, for example. Few people, to cite just one area, can help decipher the relatively complex rules associated with accounting for nonprofit organizations. Also, few people have the experience or expertise necessary to contribute meaningfully to strategic planning discussions. Some organizations might be able to hire expertise when it is needed, but even these groups must ask themselves whether doing so is a wise use of their financial resources. Most groups will need to rely on volunteers with expertise. In fact, volunteers with expertise indeed may be vital to the continued survival of such groups. These people are going to come almost exclusively from the working world. Retirees can do their part, but people with jobs will be needed as well, simply because we can expect that there won't be enough retirees with both the expertise and the interest to go around.

In this case, a caring group of managers will show their care for these stakeholders by providing them with the resources they need. This includes people. We do not advocate that people be forced to "volunteer" to work with organizations when they do not want to. That is not what caring is about. A manager characterized by a high level of caring will want to care for all stakeholders, including both local groups and the manager's own employees. If an employee does not care for a group as much as the manager, the employee will not have her well-being furthered by being forced to "volunteer" to work with the group. For example, an employee of an organization is "asked" to volunteer her time on a Saturday for a bicycle race sponsored by the organization. She has a prior commitment to spend the day involved in activities with people with whom she shares a caring relationship. She is hurt and disappointed that she cannot fulfull this commitment. A caring manager would not want that to happen. The manager instead would recognize that some employees do not share the manager's enthusiasm for the local group and should not be expected to volunteer their time to help that group. Other employees may share the manager's enthusiasm, however, and should be encouraged to volunteer time.

If one truly cares for a stakeholder, one will be naturally motivated to meet the needs of that stakeholder. Caring does not involve merely feeling for the cared-for; it involves action, as well. It should be recalled that the definition of caring includes such phrases as "look out for someone's best interests." And the question we believe caring managers ask stakeholders is, "What can we do to help you prosper?" The word "do" in that question is a clear indication that action is involved, that caring managers will seek to help local groups. A caring manager cannot merely empathize with a local group in need, cannot say "I feel for you" and go on his way. Instead, a caring manager will in some sense feel the need to help the local group, to do something to fulfill the group's needs, to further the group's well-being.

As implied earlier, financial resources will help, but local groups will have needs for volunteers as well, at times during working hours. We believe that firms should allow release time to employees who are committed volunteers to serve on group boards or do other work if necessary during working hours. Perhaps firms should even encourage employees to get involved if they feel strongly on an issue. This should be the natural result of the caring of the firm's managers for any stakeholder group, including the local groups discussed in this paper.

We see little difference between involvement on a board of a local group and involvement on a board of a for-profit organization. Both the local United Way and the local bank with whom the firm does business are stakeholders. Both have the need for administrators and technically trained people that the firm may be able to provide. In the bank's case, members of the firm's upper management structure may be able to advise the board on certain types of industries, share knowledge about other firms, provide outside and independent counsel on crucial issues facing the bank, and be part of the oversight and strategic planning teams that the bank needs. The United Way organization may have needs that are different instrumentally. For example, it may need technical knowledge such as accounting skills, information systems expertise, and the like that banks will typically hire full-time staff for. The needs may also be similar instrumentally--oversight, strategic planning, and independent counsel, for example. But these needs will always be similar essentially, in that they are important to the stakeholder's well-being.

The same type of comparison could be made between the board of trustees of the local United Way and the board of trustees or business school advisory board of a major university. Again, the needs may be instrumentally different, but they will be similar in their essentials. Some people within the firm will be interested in working with different groups--some with for-profit organizations, others with nonprofit organizations. If managers are truly acting in a caring fashion, they will need to consider the needs of all types of organizations and respond accordingly. Release time is granted to those who serve on boards of directors of for-profit organizations; why should it not be granted to those who wish to serve on the boards of local groups? A truly caring manager will not make this particular distinction between types of stakeholders that need this kind of assistance from the firm. Other distinctions may be made, as will be seen.

A manager who truly practices caring management will desire to care for as many stakeholders as possible. Since all stakeholders are essentially related to the firm, a truly caring manager will desire to help all of them, recognizing that all the relationships do exist. If people within the firm desire to do volunteer work with local organizations, it is the caring manager's self-imposed duty to not only allow it, but encourage it, as a further fulfillment of the responsibilities associated with caring. However, while all relationships have in common their mere existence, not all relationships are really the same, nor do people impose the same duties upon themselves regarding all relationships. As mentioned previously, in stable relationships the self-imposed duty will vary with the degree of caring the person feels for the other. In fact, this version of stakeholder theory follows feminist theory in stating that the closeness of the relationship, not merely its existence, must be considered when making decisions about caring.

This is much more likely to come into play for financial resources than volunteers, however. For financial resources, certain stakeholders have relationships that are closer in some respects to the firm than others. For example, while the essential nature of the relationship is the same, there can be no denying that an employee of the firm has a closer relationship to the firm's manager than a citizen of the community who the manager does not know. The manager's natural tendency, and indeed the moral act under feminist theory, is to care for the employee more than for the citizen. Decision rules can be formulated to help managers in this circumstance; one that has been proposed is, "Care enough for the least advantaged stakeholders that they not be harmed; insofar as they are not harmed, privilege those stakeholders with whom you have a close relationship" (Burton and Dunn, 1996).

When considering volunteers and release time, however, the situation is somewhat different. Some employees will not be interested in helping local groups. They should not be forced into such actions, as explained previously. Other employees will want to help local groups, but not all of them will want to help the same group, so the caring likely can be spread around to many groups. Not only that, but few demands local groups place on volunteers require large blocks of time. This means that the burden on those with whom the firm's managers may have a closer relationship will not be great, certainly not enough to warrant a denial of release time. Certainly the employees themselves need to care more for those with whom they have a close relationship, such as their fellow employees and supervisors. However, caring for those people does not rule out caring for local groups and following through on that caring as well. As in all such cases, the decision rules that are made for such instances must be followed.


This proposal for dealing with local groups may seem radical. However, it is the logical outgrowth of an emerging school of thought regarding stakeholder theory as the practice of truly caring management. In a society that seems to be calling for an increased sense of community and an increasing amount of involvement in our lives of local nonprofit organizations, those in business must understand the needs those organizations have and attempt to meet those needs as much as possible. If this means that they make what traditional management theory says is a bad decision, then so be it. In a changing society, managers must be prepared to change in all areas, not just those dealing with the market.


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