Much of the conversation around the platform ‘Neutrality Paradox’ has focused on non-profit platforms. But what are the considerations for for-profit platforms, especially the ones at the convergence of technology, media and philanthropy? Can and should they also take a moral and ethical stand on issues such as fake news, hate speech, polarising ideas? What are the costs of siding with the larger public good at the expense of their top line? While such questions are doing the rounds more in the context of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, these dilemmas are faced by all kinds of for-profit organisations today. Recently the Citigroup CEO said that banks should walk away from projects that don’t reduce their carbon emissions. These are some of the questions I am also left wondering in the context of my company, which is a for-profit crowdfunding platform for creative artists in India called Wishberry.
To give some background, most crowdfunding platforms have a set list of project guidelines and criteria, based on which they accept or reject projects looking for funding. At times, some projects that fall well- within the guidelines may also impose a risk of an adverse public reaction and potential public harm. So, the dilemma a crowdfunding platform then faces is whether they should stick to their guidelines, stay ‘neutral’ and accept such projects or whether they should make an exception and reject/discontinue such projects. Furthermore, if they accept such a project, do they have an additional responsibility to fact-check the project, investigate in case of a public backlash, or should they ignore the backlash entirely?
GlobalGiving, a nonprofit based in the United States that provides a global crowdfunding platform for grassroots charitable projects, had similar questions and took the problem head-on by organising a workshop called the ‘Neutrality Paradox’ in 2019. They invited thought-leaders and entrepreneurs facing similar dilemmas to share their perspectives on the issue. After several months of research, Global Giving published an article called ‘5 Ways We Were Wrong About Platform Neutrality’, where they concluded that ‘neutrality’ was not practical and was ‘a blunt tool used deliberately by those looking to avoid accountability and controversy.’ And while I agree wholeheartedly on a human level, I think neutrality also needs to be looked at in the context of profit vs. non-profit organisations and their respective goals.
The very foundation of non-profits is rooted in a not-for-profit structure that empowers them to think of larger public good. However, for-profit ventures are trapped in a business of model of maximising shareholder profit; therefore, they are forced to remain neutral on moral and ethical dilemmas directly affecting a for-profit organisation’s top line.
A couple of years back, a senior journalist reached out to us to raise funds for her book that focused on members of a religiously motivated lynch mob that committed a genocide in India in 2002. As per our project selection criteria, we accept any project that is unique, can exhibit a work-in-progress and whose creator has all the skills and experience to complete the project. The book met all these criteria and was hence selected. What followed were Twitter trolls who complained that the book was biased against one religion. The public discourse on the genocide was polarised with a few groups opining that this particular case was not a genocide and was only a riot. However, as the company’s founder, I took a decision to ignore the public discourse and reasoned with my colleagues that as a crowdfunding platform, we were just enablers of creative projects, just like how a book publisher would have been in this case, and that we don’t want to reject projects based on their creative content. In hindsight, I also think that my stand would probably have been the same had someone wanted to write a similar book justifying the genocide, as long as it met our project guidelines. I took this stand partly because I wanted to uphold the project guidelines we had decided upon and I did not want to open the door to subjective decision-making and partly because I did not want to lose out on the revenues that we would make from this project. And as for-profit company, I was able to take this stand.
So, the question screaming at us was far more complex than neutrality. The question was ‘are we obligated to take a stand that balances public expectations but hurts our revenues?’, and as ethically wrong as it may sound, unfortunately the foundation of for-profit models does not allow for-profit companies to take humanitarian stands. And that’s a bigger dilemma facing for-profits today, who want to be free of the entrapment of business models that adversely affect the social environment around us. However, it will never be possible under a for-profit structure.
Yes, we do have a hybrid structures like ‘Social Enterprises’, which seek to maximise profits while maximising benefits to society and the environment, however they’re still a vague and evolving concept. A paper on ‘Challenges Facing Social Enterprises in the United States’ published by George Mason University rightly says that ‘while such enterprises can include a broad or specific social cause in their articles of incorporation, there is no way to ensure that the mission is prioritised over profit making. In practice, the directors are still beholden by their fiduciary responsibility towards maximising profits for shareholders.’
Hence, instead of depending on the moral fibres of the ever-changing leaderships in a company, where one CEO might take a stand for public good but the next-in-line might overlook that only to increase the top line, there needs to be a structural shift in the legal mandate of for-profit companies that can sustainably enable and empower for-profit organisations to take humanitarian stands and to practice ‘conscious capitalism’. Otherwise, for-profits will always be forced to remain neutral and will continue to follow what I call ‘guilty capitalism’.
Anshulika Dubey is co-founder and COO of Wishberry