The Business of Giving

With the explosion of private enterprise in many parts of the world, there are more wealthy people looking for ways to give back to their communities. Business leaders in areas like Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China are exploring ways to contribute to society.

Some may wonder where business and philanthropy intersect. I believe that a healthy public sector is absolutely essential to a capitalist economy. When more money is invested in areas such as education and public welfare, it generally strengthens the environment in which businesses operate. This can result in a virtuous cycle where a better business environment leads to better profits that can lead to increased philanthropy.

What really excites me is how business has informed the philanthropic sector. Historically, corporate philanthropy was little more than a one-time gift of money that met an immediate need, often totally unrelated to a company’s mission. Today, however, there is a new area—strategic philanthropy—involving corporations that find ways to link their philanthropy to their business strategy. Companies increasingly are finding synergies between these two areas so that both profit and philanthropic efforts are under the same strategic umbrella.

Many large corporations have embraced strategic philanthropy. Networking technology giant Cisco offers free technology courses and certifications that are taught using Cisco equipment. American Express provides travel agent training online, free of charge. Dannon sells its Danone Dahi, a nutrient-enriched yogurt tailored to the health needs of many of India’s impoverished children, at a low cost.

These philanthropic efforts help society, but they also result in profit for the company. By creating a financial return to the company they can then reinvest these funds to create a sustainable philanthropic effort.  There is an old Chinese proverb that says: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Strategic philanthropy is the modern equivalent of teaching someone to fish. 

–Excerpts of an article by Philip L. Cochran, associate dean Indiana University Kelley School of Business

A Paradigm Shift for Corporate Philanthropy

Even before the Occupy Wall Street movement highlighted the role and power of corporate America in this nation’s wealth divide, according to researchers on corporate philanthropy, corporate foundation grantmakers felt “disconnected.”

It must be even more difficult since the occupiers targeted Wall Street and a spin-off, the 99% Movement, is marching on corporate shareholder meetings. Think of the quandary of corporate foundation staff: seen by the critics as factotums for a corporate agenda, seen from within their corporations as “do-gooders” perhaps not as connected to the “strategic” corporate agenda as bottom line-focused employees, and seen by themselves as people engaged, or wanting to be engaged, in philanthropy.

The researcher suggested corporate philanthropy is in that dreaded moment of “paradigm shift.” This is usually a term contributed by consultants and think tankers, but maybe it does apply in the corporate world as well.

Putting this in context:  “We need a new narrative about who we are, a narrative about value creation, how we’re creating more value for society.”

60 percent of Americans think that business is best equipped to solve our nation’s social problems, compared to a much smaller percentage who would turn to government.

[Excerpt of an article by Rick Cohen]