In capturing portraits of the homeless, ACS’ Blodgett demonstrates that not all CEOs’ interests end with a dollar sign.
If former Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli’s $210 million severance package last year made you see red, if the fact that Ken Lay had personally benefited while thousands of Enron employees lost their nest egg had you seething, and if Dennis Kozlowski’s $6,000 shower curtain made you question the state of corporate excess, let me introduce you to ACS CEO Lynn Blodgett.
Rank-and-file workers pretty much view CEOs as an overpaid, avaricious group. Heck, count me among the detractors. But just as I was starting to grow comfortable with my righteous indignation, there’s an exception to debunk my stereotyping. For me, Blodgett has done more to counter the negative perception of CEOs as fat cats than even the likes of Bill Gates, who founded the multi-billion-dollar Gates Foundation.
But Blodgett has not personally donated billions to charitable causes like Gates, so why does he deserve extra kudos? Recently, he published a pictorial collection of the homeless entitled “Finding Grace, the Face of America’s Homeless.” Comprised of black-and-white images as narrative as they are visually compelling, the book is proof that corporate social responsibility doesn’t need to start with the checkbook. (See p. 20 for more information about the book.) In his effort to raise awareness about homelessness—more importantly, to remind the reader that dignity is a right of people from all walks of life—Blodgett demonstrates that anyone can write a check, but it takes significantly more effort to personally address social ills.
When I recently spoke with him about his three-year effort to capture the portraits of homeless men, women, and children around the country, he conceded the project started out as a photography workshop assignment that snowballed into a collection of emotionally powerful portraits that spanned 50 photo shoots over three years. Along the way, he came to realize that the homeless are like the rest of us—deserving of courtesy, respect, and sometime some extra help we might lend to a neighbor.
“We’ve done work with the homeless before, but it was all in the context of a charity,” Blodgett told me. “When we did ‘Finding Grace,’ I saw what they had, which was their humanity. It was pretty amazing, really.”
CEOs are usually insulated from the gritty streets inhabited by the homeless, but Blodgett explained that he sought them out in his photo shoots, personally inviting them to participate, listening to their stories and instilling in them a confidence to pose before the lens. Imagine the difficulty he faced in winning their trust.
The logistics alone and the time required to conduct 50 shoots are surely daunting. Mustering the courage, patience, and emotional fortitude—Blodgett acknowledged that it was wrenching at times to hear about the plight of his subjects—seemed even more exhausting. And that’s why I think his effort is extraordinary. In an era when most CEOs seemed focused on raising the value of their stock options, Blodgett spent three years trudging through marginal neighborhoods, befriending the homeless, and personally helping a number of them. (He conceded that he did aid a few subjects beyond the shoots but declined to specify how.)
Blodgett told me he hopes to raise not only awareness about the plight of the homeless but also make readers develop a greater appreciation for them as people. Also, all proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Finding Grace Homelessness Initiative.
As the CEO of a company helping HR organizations transform, Blodgett said he has undergone a personal transformation through this work—both as a photographer and a leader. “I learned that you can make a difference. If you are willing to open yourself up and invest some time and emotion, you can make a difference,” he said.
Blodgett added that every CEO has a responsibility to ensure that his or her organization contributes to the community. “If I set an example for my company, there are people who are going to do more because of that example,” he added.
So, next time you see a blatant case of a CEO gone wild, just remember there are always exceptions to the rule.