Can Corporate Philanthropies Lead?

Ellen Remmer
Corporate Philanthropy
Friday, May 7, 2010

In the midst of the mess in 2009, TPI undertook a qualitative research project to find out what corporate philanthropic leaders – past and present – were thinking and doing.  For the most part the responses were encouraging in spirit and the on-the-ground changes in practice were as you would expect. 

Most respondents talked about the need to “put on your own oxygen mask first” and maintain jobs first and foremost.  Most talked about the imperative in a time of decreased resources to sharpen focus, align goals, and expand non-cash donations and employee volunteerism.  Many borrowed resources from what we were considered less pressing areas – e.g. the arts -  to increase their support for basic needs.  Some talked about the long term value and increased market demand for an authentic, embedded Corporate Social Responsibility strategy inclusive of philanthropy.  And they spoke to the imperative of communicating internally and externally about what was accomplished.  So, in this time of storm and stress, the message given by the best of corporate leadership was stay calm, true, responsive and transparent. 

But here’s my question.  While this is comforting and wonderful, and hey, I am relieved that they didn’t just stop giving and I do know that they need to stay alive in order to be a good citizen, is this the potential of corporate philanthropic leadership? 

We live in a market, consumer driven economy and oh, just in case you missed it, Wal-mart is the 11th largest economy in the world.  When a global company changes its vendor or consumer practices, the impact can be significant and widespread.  That’s why authentic, reflective, transparent and high impact CSR strategies – inclusive of a strategic philanthropy program – are critical.  The philanthropic component can be relatively small in dollars, but what really matters is the message it sends, particularly to employees, consumers and communities.   It is the unusual company who takes on a risky issue and elevates it  – I think of  Wainwright Bank and its focus on gay/lesbian and other civil rights or Mintz Levin who took on the messy and often distasteful issue of domestic violence.  It is an unusual company who challenges its peers to step up to the plate and give more or give together – I think of State Street Bank and their youth violence prevention initiative.  And an unusual company who challenges its employees to share their wealth and initiative for social good – I think of the potential for Goldman Sachs. 

Who do you see providing corporate philanthropic leadership?  And what kind of leadership do you think our society needs going forward?