by Dennis R. Shaughnessy 

An earnest student dropped by my campus office during the course registration process for our current semester to ask if I was teaching any business courses that he could sign up for. He had heard that my classes might be worth signing up for, knowing that these classes were only being offered by the business school.

I thanked him, and told him that I was teaching sections of the course we call “global social enterprise”. “It’s about entrepreneurship that is focused on helping people find the opportunities for a dignified life that many of us take for granted” I offered. “Oh, that’s right” he said, “you’re the one that teaches all the “do gooders”. I was interested in a real business class, sorry.”

He was right, I do teach many so-called “do gooders”. That’s what this note is about: teaching do gooders.

So, how exactly is it that “do gooder” came to be an insult, even among young people? In an academic context, I’ve even heard the term used in an intellectually condescending way, as though “do gooders” aren’t smart enough to study intellectually challenging disciplines like engineering or finance. Or for some, being a do gooder is a sign of weakness. The strong fight for their share, and the weak worry about everyone getting their fair share.

Many of my former business and law colleagues suggest to me that to be a “do-gooder” is to be naïve, an idealist, a romantic, or a so-called “bleeding heart”. Recall the saying that “if you’re not a liberal (or, a do gooder) when you’re young, you don’t have a heart; if you’re not a conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain.” Why should a young person major in sociology, anthropology or another of the “soft” disciplines as one concerned parent recently asked to me, when the likely outcome is “a job market with few opportunities and low pay, and years of frustration”?

With all this as a backdrop to the month of January, having just seen the critically acclaimed movie “Selma” that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the marches for voting rights for African Americans, and watched a moving ceremony honoring the liberation of Auschwitz 70 years ago, it gave me pause. While we should celebrate and honor those who dedicated the lives to “doing good”, from Martin Luther King to Elie Weisel, we sometimes question the choices of young people to pursue their own path to doing good.

It is our focus at SEI is to help young do gooders prepare for their own version of the path to impact and change, if they choose it. To learn from the examples of morally courageous heroes like Dr. King and Dr. Weisel in building a future that includes the possibility of using the tool of business to achieve social and economic justice.

Indeed, it is the do-gooders who have and are, at the present, starting and building social enterprises that are changing the way we think about the things that matter in life. Do gooders are helping to increase opportunity, reduce inequality and enhance the dignity of each person.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned from hundreds of students after nearly ten years of teaching do gooders.

  1. Character can be taught, it requires only an open mind to learn how to be a better person.
  2. Happiness should not be confused with meaning, the former is the by-product of the latter.
  3. Greed is a choice, not the natural outcome of capitalism.
  4. Inequality is what happens when business is broken, not when it’s working.
  5. Success and humility are natural partners, not fortune and fame.
  6. Moral courage and compassion have a market manifestation, and it’s called social enterprise.
  7. The first step in learning is to studying people and their work and impact.

It’s the last one, learning through studying remarkable people, that I now turn. While Dr. King and Elie Weisel are perhaps the best known “do gooders” associated with the civil rights movement in the US (remember “Selma”) and the holocaust under the Nazis (Auschwitz liberation memorial), there are two other lesser known people connected forever with these two events worthy of our study.

Viola Liuzzo and Witold Pilecki. Selma and Auschwitz. Each demonstrated the kind of character and courage that we associate with doing good. The four shared traits: moral courage, compassion, humility and a commitment to justice. To learn, by extraordinary example.

Viola Luizzo is the only white woman murdered in connection with the civil rights movement. After watching the brutality of the police response to Dr. King and Congressman Lewis’ peaceful marches in Selma, she drove from Michigan to help in whatever way she could, leaving her five children behind. After working side-by-side with the demonstrators, and helping to coordinate the logistics of the march, she offered a ride back to Selma from Montgomery to a young black demonstrator, and this 39 year old mother and volunteer for justice was murdered as a result. It was later learned that the murderer was an FBI informant, and the punishment of the conspirators was far less than what justice would have required. For those interested in this remarkable story of courage, compassion and humility, there are two books: “From Selma to Sorrow: the Life and Death of Viola Luizzo” by Mary Stanton, and “The Informant: The FBI, the KKK and the Murder of Viola Liuzzo” by Gary May.

Witold Pilecki’s story might best be captured in the following stunning statement: he volunteered to be a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mission was to report on what he believed were the atrocities committed in the camps by the Nazis, by standing side-by-side with the Jewish and other prisoners. After creating first person, eye witness reports on the horrors of the camps, including torture and humiliation for more than two years, he organized a resistance movement and eventually escaped in an effort to tell the story of the mass extermination of Jews by Hitler’s men. His remarkable drive was based in a quiet but deeply rooted commitment to the truth and to the dignity of the individual. His story is captured in the book “The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery” by Michael Schudrich. Sadly, his story was largely repressed for nearly 50 years by corrupt and indecent leaders. As a reward for his courage, Captain Pilecki was executed in 1948 by Stalin’s secret police.

These are two stories of “do gooders” memorialized in the first month of the new year that teach character by example. While the commitment to doing good in a business setting is of course vastly less dangerous, what is nevertheless a shared commitment among do gooders is the moral courage of doing what’s right when so many others choose not to, the compassion to care for others regardless of connection and proximity, and the humility to do the work quietly and without special recognition.

We do not expect or even encourage today’s students to take the kinds of life-threatening risks taken by moral giants like Violet Luizzo or Witold Pilecki. Rather, we encourage students to learn, from these extraordinary examples, how to be better in ordinary ways. Compassion, courage and humility are character traits than can be exercised every day, in things as simple as how we interact with people of lesser advantage or those experiencing difficult times. Or volunteering for community service, or trying a co-op in a new and interesting field or place like a social enterprise in a developing country.

In sum, for the common good we need both the self-interested who often power economic growth as they pursue their own goals passionately, and the do gooders who empower others so that they may have a fair chance to follow their dreams.

So, the next time we use the term “do gooder”, let’s hope that it’s with the recognition and respect that do gooders like Viiola Luizzo and Witold Pilecki so clearly deserve.

For students interested in the topics captured here, we are now offering an undergraduate seminar called “Just” Business: The Moral Dimensions of Business Decision-making.


Photo of Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963; by Unknown – available at the National Archives and Records Administration and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.