Corporate Philanthropy Q&A: Can Companies Get Better at Doing Good?

Chris Latham
Senior Writer

American businesses that donate to nonprofits and charitable causes do so for a wide variety of reasons, from a desire to improve the world to a desire to improve the firm’s own public image and bottom line.

Left: Carí Jackson Lewis,  Right: Pam Lewis

Corporate philanthropy by definition involves a company’s leaders making decisions about how to interact with external stakeholders. These often include members of the communities their donations will impact. This Is Capitalism conducted interviews with two experts who have extensive experience in this area.

I asked each of them questions about how companies can get better at doing good. Here are edited excerpts from those interviews.

Carí Jackson Lewis, J.D., founder and principal of California Philanthropic Consulting, is a personal estate planner who also works with companies on creating tax-aware charitable-giving strategies with a focus on racial and social justice for vulnerable communities.

CHRIS: What would you tell companies to do in order to get better at conducting corporate philanthropy?

CARI: While there are numerous factors that corporations should consider when establishing corporate social responsibility programs, or corporate foundations, these are my top three. First of all, be strategic and focused, do your due diligence, and have a clear business rationale for supporting a charitable organization. Then take into consideration your employees’ philanthropic goals and help them to support the charities of their choice.

Finally, incorporate a racial equity and social justice lens and infuse environmentally friendly practices throughout the corporation and its operations, both internally and externally.

CHRIS: That’s a lot to digest. How does strategy and focus come into play?

CARI: Hew closely to your primary line of business when selecting nonprofit organizations to support. It will help the corporation to be more authentic, intentional, and committed to the nonprofit, perhaps on a multi-year basis  —  the best kind of commitment. The corporation can then offer various kinds of support — cash, in-kind donations, employee volunteers, mentorship, fundraising events, board membership, etc. Track the impact of your activities by using the nonprofit’s measures of success — it probably isn’t the same as the corporation’s measures.

CHRIS: Why should companies look into their employees’ philanthropic goals?

CARI: Whether through workplace giving programs, employee gift-matching, a paid volunteer day, or other supportive activities, employees who feel aligned with their corporate values are happier and more engaged in their work. Affinity groups and Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are wonderful partners in corporate philanthropy, and they can often lead the way for the organization.

CHRIS: How can firms effectively address racial and social justice with corporate philanthropy?

CARI: The corporate social responsibility/foundation or philanthropic executive in charge of overseeing this process must be a senior executive officer who can and will report, at least annually, on the company’s internal inclusion, diversity, equity, and access (IDEA) work and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. Corporations that “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk” will get more buy-in from customers, employees, and peers in the industry.

If, however, the company gets low marks in these areas, all the charitable initiatives in the world will be insufficient to improve their reputation or create genuine connections with consumers.  Authenticity is crucial to long-term success in this field.

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Pam Lewis is the Executive Director of Connect-Us, a Bridgeport, Connecticut-based nonprofit that accepts corporate philanthropic donations in order to provide youth in largely minority communities with artistic talent shows and business internship training workshops.

CHRIS: What types of corporate donors have you seen contribute most effectively to community-based grassroots nonprofits such as Connect-Us?

PAM: People who started their own businesses and worked their way up have generally been the most supportive to Connect-Us. I find them to lean in the most. They appreciate what it’s like to build something. A lot of these people didn’t come from money, and they have a sense of social responsibility. When you’re interacting with the people who founded the company or own it, they are often the most generous. Often they give the most money, because they can make that kind of decision.

CHRIS: Do these types of donors share similar perspectives on corporate philanthropy?

PAM: Many of the corporate donors that I deal with see the social inequity and see that things are not fair for Black and brown communities. They feel they have a responsibility to invest in the growth and development of young people. Some business owners go further, so that it’s not just their company giving, but they also invite their friends to give. Business owners also have young talent at their firms who want to work for companies that do things to support equity in this country.

CHRIS: Is donating money the full scope of their contributions, or can donors do more?

PAM: Corporate donors also volunteer their time with Connect-Us. This is important, because we bring young people who live in disadvantaged communities to the offices of these businesses. That’s where the corporate volunteers spread out and talk to the young people. Depending on the workshop, they may be helping kids with resume writing or explaining basic legal issues to the kids. It makes both the volunteers and the kids feel good, because the kids are not usually invited into these kinds of places.

CHRIS: In your view, are companies doing enough as organizations with their corporate philanthropy programs, and how can they improve on their activities?

PAM: As a small nonprofit, a lot of the donations we receive — even the grants and foundation gifts — are based on relationships that we establish with key individuals at companies. Having said that, when you look at the balance of individual giving, foundational giving, and corporate giving for nonprofits in general, individuals and foundations each give a higher percentage than companies. So it would be great if companies started leaning in and giving much more than they currently do. Especially companies that did well financially last year. The good news is that, when I bring this up with donors, the corporate community has said that they will step up.