I (Dan) have always cringed a bit when corporate types talk about “giving back.” It’s not because I have any problem whatsoever with corporate giving (I don’t), or because I think businesses don’t have a role to play in boosting their communities (they do).

The issue I have is with what the phrase implies. It’s an idea that I think drives much of corporate messaging in a counterproductive direction.

When you feel the need to give something back, the implication is that it rightfully belonged to someone else and you took it. “Give back your brother’s baseball mitt! Give back your sister’s earrings!”

If you take something that belongs to someone else and you don’t give it back, you’re a thief.

But if you earn something through a free exchange in which you fulfill your part of the agreement, you have every right to what you got. You are under no obligation to give it back.

The idea of “giving back” for corporations is tinged with a notion of guilt. If you made massive profits last year, that must mean you took money away from other people who are now desperately missing it. If only you hadn’t taken in all those profits, the community would have money for housing and feeding the homeless, cleaning up the streets, rehabbing old buildings, etc.

But no. There is no money because you, evil corporation, took it all away in profits. Give it back!

This is a populist – and wrong – conception of how business finance works. Most of the time, when a company makes a healthy profit, it’s because it’s providing goods or services that people want, and making them available at a fair price.

The company that makes high-quality refrigerators isn’t absconding with people’s money. It’s providing them with a way to keep their food from spoiling. The company that makes shower heads isn’t picking people’s pockets. It’s helping them to be clean. When people pay whatever these things cost, they consider it a worthwhile exchange. They want what they get for the money more than they want to just keep the money.

And companies who earn profits don’t just stash the money in a room somewhere and look at it. They redeploy it to buy equipment, or hire more people, or buy materials from other businesses that also need the revenue.

Where I’m going as a marketing content writer is this: Businesses do good work simply by virtue of doing a good job at their core businesses. When you provide products and services that people need, you’ve done good right there. If you want to also give to charity, fine, but you don’t have to do that to have made a positive contribution to society.

Many corporate leaders border on being apologetic for making profits. They want much of their messaging to be about how they “give back” because they’re afraid they can’t justify their own place in the economic world if they don’t.

This has a lot to do with the misconception that profitable corporations just use all the cash for big corporate parties, or yachts, or executive trips to exotic locales, or $1,000 steak dinners. Corporate executives are very sensitive about this public perception, and seek to counter it by putting lots of emphasis on their charitable contributions and volunteer efforts.

Again, there is nothing wrong with doing any of that. But if corporations are doing it to escape condemnation for being profitable, they need to change that narrative and put the focus on the good they do just by being good at their businesses.

It would help, of course, if popular media had the slightest idea how business finance actually works. But there are dreams that may never come true.

When we write marketing content for a client, we always urge them to put the focus on the good they do with their core products and services. There is no need to apologize for profiting from this.

Then, if they want to talk about your efforts to benefit the community with your available cash, we will happily help them tell that story too.

But it shouldn’t be some sort of guilt offering because they made a profit. Making a profit is exactly what they’re supposed to do.