The Evolution and Elevation of Corporate Philanthropy
Corporate philanthropy has evolved immensely over the past few decades. Our recent conversation with three CEOs adds light to this shift and provides helpful insights to others that are looking to weave philanthropy more tightly into the culture of their companies. Below, we share the corporate philanthropy experiences of these leaders and the lessons they’ve learned.
The Changing View of Corporate Philanthropy
Some thirty years ago, philanthropy at work was mostly defined simplistically as a line for charitable contributions on one’s income statement, if at all. For example, some companies strongly encouraged participation in the United Way and considered their indirect contributions to the array of organizations supported by those employee contributions as “checking the box” on charity. Others supported various charitable events such as galas, silent auctions, or fundraisers of different sorts. Those events were used as opportunities to host clients, gain recognition, and again, to check the philanthropy box. Giving decisions were closely tied to C-suite and/or owner relationships, not highly visible, and usually made without employee input.
Today, the prevalent use of social media and websites enables individuals to quickly find out about an organization’s community involvement and philanthropic efforts. Previously, it was much harder for prospective employees, partners, or vendors to get a read on the culture of a company they were considering a relationship with. Even current employees often didn’t know what the company was doing. That knowledge is now pivotal for many candidates considering employment as well as for investors whose interest in the environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of the companies they invest in is increasing. Companies today must define, demonstrate, and actively exemplify their values, of which corporate philanthropy should be key.
Experiencing the Impact of Philanthropic Efforts
For Ellen Wood (CEO of vcfo), a philanthropy epiphany came in vcfo’s first year, 1996, when she saw the difference that a $10,000 gift made in a reading program at her son’s elementary school. The amount of the gift was almost unheard of at the time for a PTA project. Teachers expressed enormous gratitude for the donation and shared its incredible impact on their students’ love of and ability to excel in reading. A business owner gave the money from his own pocket with no expectation in return, something Ellen had not previously seen modeled at that time.
That experience was heavily influential in vcfo’s decision to support a variety of charitable endeavors every year since its founding. Initially, vcfo’s giving mirrored the interests of ownership. Along the way, vcfo gives™ was created along with an employee committee whose involvement ensures that employees have the opportunity to participate in the decisions on groups receiving contributions and to participate in various in-person activities with the supported organizations.
One favorite has been vcfo’s support for Austin’s BookSpring program which builds early literacy in children and families. vcfo funds the purchase of books for students across two grades at participating schools and provides volunteers to read to the children during a week-long program. Often these books are the first or even only books in the home and support reading for siblings at home as well. Another favorite is vcfo’s “Pay it Forward” program that gives every employee $100 to contribute to purposes that are important to them. Contributions have ranged from food bank replenishment, to crafting hats for premature babies, to buying groceries for first responders, to giving a large tip to a busy server who appeared to need it. Employees are not required to report back but often enjoy sharing their experiences from the Pay it Forward experiences with one another.
From Reactive Giving to Proactive Philanthropy
Joyce Durst, CEO of Growth Acceleration Partners (GAP), notes that her firm’s philanthropic efforts were once driven by miscellaneous, once or twice a year ad hoc giving projects. That has been transformed into ongoing, coordinated employee-led programs.
Through the GAP Gives program, GAP donates a percentage of its profits, while employees can donate their money, time or their skills to charities in their local communities. The giving goals are published quarterly for all to see and reported via a monthly newsletter so everyone can track progress. GAP supports a wide variety of initiatives that are selected quarterly by an online employee vote in each country where their offices are located. In the past year, GAP donated computers to kids forced into remote learning, provided financial assistance to women majoring in STEM, assisted charities working to end childhood poverty, supplied prosthetics to children and adults in need, and supported charities that provide permanent housing for the chronically homeless.
One unique program launched by the company is the GAP Tree Nation project. With this program, every new hire is honored with a $50 contribution that results in a tree being planted to re-populate the rainforest. For Durst and others at GAP, it is important for every employee to have a way of voicing support for and giving back to causes and purposes that are meaningful to them.
Integrating Giving into Company Culture
As CEO of Authentic Impact and a Certified EOS™ Implementer, Elizabeth Davis has seen significant change in corporate giving over her career. The first female CEO of an Austin Ventures-backed company in Austin, she saw firsthand that corporate giving was not a priority 30 years ago. She also notes big shifts over time in the venture-backed community’s approach to giving which were influenced heavily by the Entrepreneurs Foundation (EF) under the leadership of Bill Bock and Tom Meredith. They enabled a slice of stock options to EF who held them until a liquidity event created a pool of cash that could then be donated to charitable endeavors of interest to their employees. EF also undertook the mission of educating member companies on philanthropy and helping their employee groups find non-cash means of involving employees.
During Elizabeth’s tenure with The Miracle Foundation as COO and President, she guided the internationally focused nonprofit’s support of orphaned children in rural India. Elizabeth experienced how powerful it can be for companies to understand the impact their support is having through metrics and outcomes. Corporate sponsors appreciate that non-profits are evolving to operate more as a business with the heart of a non-profit. This allows companies to have even greater alignment with the non-profit organizations they support. Her work as a senior leader for companies and nonprofits has shown her the importance of weaving giving into the fabric of company culture and making it a meaningful experience for employees.
Corporate Philanthropy Today
Corporate philanthropy should no longer be approached as simplistic one-and-done contributions to causes not championed by employees or connected to a company’s mission. Today, employees value opportunities to support their communities and be a part of something bigger than the company. Leaders should engage with employees to gain their inputs and energy and establish programs that enable them to be a part of making a difference in their community and beyond. Philanthropy can tie individuals and organizations to meaningful purposes, bring us closer together, and serve as a reflection of core values.