Taking Stock / Donations for Whose Benefit?

"Bank Leumi, Bank Hapoalim, Bezeq, Israel Chemicals and Partner run their operations honestly and ethically, showing respect to the parties with whom they do business. They do not cheat, mislead, or exploit loopholes in the law."

"Leumi, Hapoalim, Bezeq, Israel Chemicals and Partner view obeying the law as just the minimal standard, and voluntarily promote issues with social ramifications beyond the requirements of the law, instituting advanced norms of social responsibility."

"Leumi, Hapoalim, Bezeq, Israel Chemicals and Partner diligently keep their promises, address problems through their values, and create relationships based on trust with their stake-holders."

"Leumi, Hapoalim, Bezeq, Israel Chemicals and Partner encourage competitive conduct that does social and environmental good, shows respect to rivals, and safeguards the property rights of others. They do not employ illegal or unkosher means to advance their products, to spy on other companies or for any other purpose. When they use lobbyists, they remain consistently committed to their policy of social responsibility and do not offer, promise, give or demand inducements or any other consideration to create or maintain an improper business advantage."

How do you feel about those four paragraphs?

You probably don't manage any of the above companies, and therefore feel they are a tad bemusing, or that Leumi, Hapoalim, Bezeq, Israel Chemicals and Partner need to prove themselves at least.

It is possible that some of their customers, their business partners and sometimes even newspaper readers have a slightly different view of the way these companies are managed.

The list of companies is not random. These are the five companies leading the index of Israeli companies that promote social responsibility in Israel, according to the Maala - Business for Social Responsibility organization. They head the list based on Maala's own criteria.

Maala is a nonprofit organization that aims to help corporate Israel develop and implement business strategy incorporating social commitment, to improve their business and the Israeli society at the same time.

The organization believes the widening social gaps, coupled with globalization that brings multinationals to Israel, together with their traditions of contributing to the community, are preparing the groundwork for a new era of "corporate citizenship" - cooperation between the business world, social services and civilian organizations. Those sentences about honesty, fairness and trust with which we began come straight from the business code that Maala developed. We added the names of the companies, of course.

What money can buy

Is it their keen sense of ethics that elevated Bank Leumi, Bank Hapoalim, Bezeq, Israel Chemicals and Partner to the top of the Maala index? Apparently not. The main criterion (30 percent) is financial donations (in absolute terms and in percent). And this is the root of the problem with the Maala index, and of contributions in Israel, in general: Too much weight is given to donations and too little to principles of integrity, fairness and trust.

Maala says that donations bear great influence on the society in which the company operates. Companies that donate their resources to the public advance and strengthen the community in which they work.

Sounds good, reads well, markets beautifully, but it's an open secret that donations - mainly the highly publicized ones - are one of the ways companies and businessmen scrub a tarred public image. In some cases, there is an inverse correlation between donations and social responsibility: The more a company tramples social, democratic and economic norms, the more resources it has and the more it pours (and, maybe, needs to pour) into highly publicized contributions.

None other than the uber-PR man Rani Rahav, who represents most of Israel's biggest companies, put it perfectly in an interview with Haaretz a year ago: From his perspective, he said with pure frankness, "anybody contributing in secret is not contributing at all."

The Maala leaders are well aware that donations can serve to launder images and cover for defective social responsibility. In fact, the organization is working on rethinking its criteria.

It is also true that Maala is raising awareness of corporate citizenship in corporate Israel, and how it can contribute to business, too. But if Maala really wants to lead the revolution in social responsibility, it might do well to expedite the update of its index components: less and less donation, more and more ethical, straightforward, reliable business conduct, fairness in advertising, and respect to workers - not only directly employed ones, but suppliers and contractors, too.

Naturally, tackling subjects like this could be explosive, especially when dealing with the corporate behemoths. The challenge in setting criteria is enormous, but the results could be commensurately immeasurable.

Meanwhile, the luminaries running Maala shouldn't be surprised if consumers and the man in the street are not exactly stampeding for the products of the top 20 companies leading the index.