Norman Lear's Not Laughing

The creator of ''All in the Family'' built a nonprofit to celebrate socially responsible companies. Now the Business Enterprise Trust is dead. What went wrong?

They gathered each spring at New York's storied Rainbow Room, overlooking Rockefeller Center — a glitzy, A-list sampling of media and big-business heavies. Barbara Walters and Warren Buffett. Diane Sawyer and P. Roy Vagelos. Bill Bradley showed up one year, Bill Clinton the next.

They came for an awards breakfast, the signature event of the Business Enterprise Trust, a nonprofit group founded in 1989 by television producer Norman Lear to laud companies for integrating social vision into their business plans. The Trust honored companies as diverse as Inland Steel, where a grassroots employee team helped create opportunities for women and minorities, and McKay Nursery, which offered stock ownership to its migrant workers.

The feel-good message — This is how American business can be done — and the top-line production values made for a compelling show. But apparently not compelling enough. Although the Trust has sold thousands of case studies based on the stories of its award recipients, for the past four years there has been no Rainbow Room breakfast. And last June, after sinking about $10 million of his own money into the organization, Lear quietly pulled the plug. "This needed deeper pockets than mine," he says.

The Trust's demise is being mourned in social-responsibility circles, where Lear, 78, is seen as a truly decent man who catalyzed the movement. Indeed, he is widely admired: Though famously liberal in his politics, Lear's haimish charm and good intentions appealed even to the most conservative corporate titans.

And the timing is ironic. Few would accuse business of becoming dramatically more enlightened in the last decade, but arguably, interest in social justice has never been greater. There's been a surge in diversity and work-life programs, in employee voluntarism, and in so-called cause marketing. A seemingly endless raft of awards now honor the best companies to work for. And top business schools are dedicating resources to the development of curricula for environmental, social, and ethical issues.

Such abundance, perhaps, contributed to the Trust's demise: Amid the burgeoning interest in corporate social responsibility, Lear's optimistic yet cranky perspective on business never really evolved beyond the breakfasts and the case studies (unlike his other pet project, the unabashedly liberal People for the American Way, which has remained vital since its inception in 1980).

Lear started the Trust to counter what he saw as the extreme shortsightedness of 1980s corporate moguls. He had created the breakthrough sitcom All in the Family, then The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times — all of which made him both a television legend and extremely wealthy — but he feared that TV networks were sacrificing programming quality for profits. So too, he believed, were companies abandoning what he saw as their civic responsibility in the pursuit of higher profits. Amid reports of material excess, as headlines trumpeted the misdeeds of Charles Keating and Michael Milken, Americans and American businesspeople needed to understand that "you can make money by doing good" and that "there were some businesses that were not run by criminals," Lear says. "We needed a Nobel prize for business."

His annual awards breakfast always drew crowds — in part because of his standing in the entertainment industry, but also because he and Trust chairman James Burke, the former CEO of Johnson & Johnson, had engaged a star-studded board that included Warren Buffett, Katharine Graham, and John Walton. Unfortunately, Lear never pressed his deep-pocketed trustees to get out their checkbooks. "I'm not very good at asking people I know for money," he admits. Most nonprofits have no such qualms, however; in fact, asking board members for money is the norm. So when Lear sought outside backing to relieve the drain on his own wallet, "foundations questioned the nature of his board's commitment," says Judy Samuelson, 48, who worked with Lear while at the Ford Foundation and who now heads the Aspen Institute's Initiative for Social Innovation Through Business.

So the Trust sought an alliance with a major business school. After partnership talks with Harvard failed, Lear focused his efforts on Northwestern's Kellogg Graduate School of Management and the University of Michigan. Talks went furthest with Kellogg, but in the throes of a $1.4 billion capital campaign, Northwestern opted not to seek another $10 million, the sum required to fund a lasting endowment for the Trust.

Lear's agenda made it difficult to embrace the Trust, say academic sources: University researchers tend to avoid anything that smacks of advocacy. At the same time, Lear's somewhat unfocused activism may have grown less appealing to interest groups with more specific designs for change. "It did a good job of chronicling leading practices — but that wasn't tied to a strong organizational agenda," says Bradley Googins, 57, executive director of the Center for Corporate Community Relations at Boston College.

Yet, "it really did add value," says Bob Dunn, 57, president and CEO of Business for Social Responsibility. A decade ago, Dunn says, "people thought that corporate social responsibility was something attached mostly to small businesses led by owner-founders, and linked to political or social activism. The Trust came along and said this is an issue that concerns every company."

Lear himself has never claimed that the Trust provoked dramatic change — just as Archie Bunker couldn't force Americans in the 1970s to think differently about racism overnight. But in the end, that may have been why the Trust couldn't survive: It never went for the knockout blow. In its soft-pedal humility, the Trust became, well, bland. Still, Lear hopes that businesspeople were affected in ways that might, years from now, foster change: "My grandfather used to tell me, 'Norman, if you throw a pebble into a pond, physicists will tell you that the lake rises. You'll never see that. You'll just see a ripple.' "

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