Community stewardship is increasingly expected from American companies of all sizes. Philanthropy used to be the purview of very large corporations through their own foundations. Today, even the smallest companies have creative ways to show affection for the communities in which they “live.” Old-school practices might have included a cash donation to one or two organized nonprofits in the community. Often these donations were meant to enhance the company’s image and might even be connected to a board member’s pet project. Things have really changed over the last 15 years. While many large corporations still have foundations, the bar has been raised to adopt a more integrated giving approach.
First: More pressing social issues
Global warming, pollution, high gas prices (sustainable agriculture and buy-local campaigns) and unemployment (employment sustainability) have been added to traditional vulnerable populations (poor, disabled, and displaced). While state and federal funds are shrinking, social concerns are in some cases getting worse. They are also top-of-mind when increasingly discussed in a global, media-based society. We know instantly when a rain forest is disturbed on the other side of the earth. When George Bush, Sr. gave his “1000 Points of Light” speech in 1989, we didn’t know it at the time but this would signal a permanent shift to increasing dependence on the private sector. His view was that charity is the responsibility of the private sector (small government, lower taxes, etc). Later, more pressure for this shift would come from severe budget shortfalls at states across the country. But I digress.
Second: Small company owners are passionate about sharing abundance
I recently heard a young woman (28-ish) describe her small company’s philanthropic activities and was struck by how clear and determined she was. Company size just isn’t a barrier in her thinking. She is committed and moving forward with a variety of creative ways to share her success with worthy local causes. I see this in many of the small businesses I advise regularly. It’s got nothing to do with me pushing an agenda. They are just there with a compassion that I imagine comes from a family where giving back is what you do. It’s inspiring and you can see how employees would “catch” the fever.
Third: Giving efforts are more creative and less formal
Companies interested in helping their communities are limited only by their imagination. Ideas include micro initiatives (car washes), macro initiatives (Facebook contests) and everything in between.
The United Way “Day of Caring” combined with the explosion of social media got company owners thinking and moving. In addition, nonprofit fundraising has ramped up in quantity, quality and creativity. A for-profit company writing checks to a few community nonprofits has transformed into: direct support for environmental concerns, buy-local support through employee discounts, funding nonprofit capacity building, education scholarships, community landscaping & gardening, days-of-caring and so much more. In my opinion, younger workers coming into the commercial and nonprofit workforce have influenced creativity both in how nonprofits ask for money and in how corporations are giving. Young people are also donating differently (web-based searches and analysis) pulling nonprofits into Internet-based marketing and online donations.
One small company I know selected a nonprofit through a strategic process (focused on a particular mission); underwrote production of logo wear (polar fleece vests) with the nonprofit’s logo; and sold them at a reduced cost to their 80 employees. All the proceeds of these sales were donated to the charity. Employees were encouraged to explain why the charity’s logo is on their vest when asked in the community. It’s essentially a 360 degree internal marketing campaign for the charity and a clear demonstration of the company’s commitment to the local community.
Fourth: Standards for community investment are just higher
The Human Resources group “Society for Human Resource Management” (SHRM)considers corporate social responsiblity to be an integral component of every company’s strategic plan and something HR professionals must be prepared to help organize. I studied for the SPHR (Senior Professional of Human Resources) exam in 2009 and learned about a more integrated and institutionalized approach to corporate giving. The SHRM Learning System ® 2009 describes four phases of increased quality giving covered in the “Strategic Management” module in a section on “Ethical Issues Affecting Organizations.” That is a serious endorsement!
The phases begin with 1. Reactive corporate philanthropy, and move to, 2. Strategic contributions, 3. Mainstream involvement, and the most integrated, 4. Corporate accountability. Social responsibility is seen as an investment in the community. Employees want to work at a company that’s engaged in the community. The idea is that companies go through these phases over time as they grow. The highest level, Corporate Accountability, means employee involvement at all levels. This doesn’t mean merely giving money — it can include allowing paid employee time off to volunteer some part of every month on a nonprofit site. Yes, this approach improves the company’s image in the community but it also results more robust support for local nonprofits.
An ancillary benefit of corporations getting smarter about giving is elevated expectations for ethical and efficient nonprofit operations. Companies want to be sure their cash or time donation is used wisely and consistent with the public trust. No waste; good financial checks and balances; and other business-like efficiency practices are raising the bar for community nonprofits. Always a good thing!