How do corporate foundations work? Lloyds Bank and Syngenta Foundations share insights


Steffen Bethmann


The first European Knowledge Exchange of Corporate Foundations, took place this week.  Organized by DAFNE and French Associations of foundations (CFF), part of the program was organized around the topic of foundations’ mission alignment with their funding corporation.

I attended the session with the somewhat open title – ‘social justice, empowerment, tackling disadvantages and development aid’.

Corporate foundations are almost never independent entities. Most commonly they rely on periodic funding and their boards are dominated by corporate representatives. They can however differ very much in terms of the alignment of their activities with the core mission of the corporation. Some are very close and others might have no relationship at all. In our session the Lloyds Bank Foundation (LBF) and the Syngenta Foundation were asked to talk about the challenges and opportunities that arise due to linkages with their funding corporation.

Duncan Shrubsole and Harriet Stranks from the LBF started with a thirty minute power tour through their work. Lloyds bank itself went through a tough time during the financial crisis. Its long and proud history was damaged by some shady transactions, which led to the necessity of the government rescuing the bank. Now, back in shape, its overarching mission is to ‘Help Britain Prosper Again’.

The LBF itself picked up the motto, but in a complementary manner. While the bank has a presence on almost every high street, the foundation supports people in the back street – following the mission ‘breaking disadvantages – bettering lives’. LBF’s funding programmes concentrate on topics such as reemployment, drug addiction, mental illnesses and the homeless.

The foundation funds charities that work with people that might be left behind, even in a newly prospering society. In total it awarded around £21 million in 2015. The four program pillars are responsive grant making, strategic grants to selected charities, matching bank employees’ fundraisers, and capacity building of charities through corporate volunteers. Lately the LBF has also planned to expand its influence on public policy, in support of the most vulnerable of the society.

What sounds very good on PowerPoint slides also has its challenges. Even though the foundation is quite big, the 35 employees are marginal compared to the 70,000 at the bank. The foundation strives to get the attention of the bank and employees to value its activities. However, very frequent restructuring programs make it difficult to engage long term with partners that might be located elsewhere after a short time.

There are high opportunity costs in developing complex synergistic programs that might be stopped quickly by a new person in charge. Having said that, the foundation is confident to build up steady programs in the long run which bring value to the bank and the foundation alike. Its grant making activities for sure have helped many people in the UK.

That the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SF) is an instrumental arm of the Syngenta Corporation, this is a sentence that Paul Castle, the foundations’ communication manager, does not like to hear at all. With compelling stories and solid reasoning he vividly defends and promotes the work of the foundation. Of course he knows that chemical agriculture and genetic seed producers are not among the most liked companies in the world.

However, Paul argues, feeding 9 billion people cannot be done through biological agriculture alone – modern techniques are necessary to increase agriculture productivity. Hence the mission of the company to ‘feed the world’ is a claim that the foundation can easily align with. It is striving to do so by ‘creating value for resource-poor small farmers through innovation in sustainable agriculture and the activation of value chains’. Foundation employees aim to teach small farmers how to become more productive, have access to markets and seek insurance against risks such as drought or heavy rainfall.

According to Paul the work is purely complementary. No Syngenta products are promoted, nor are they actually possible solutions to the challenges that small farmers face.  The SF works with ‘pre-commercial’ farmers in developing countries. The mission alignment is high, which leads to impactful programs. Foundation employees have direct access to the company´s knowledge and expertise.  This enables them to react quickly to newly emerging situations such as plant diseases. The aim of foundation is to support the poorest to make a decent living working their lands. It is doing so in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

After the two presentations a short discussion emerged. Sadly time ran out quickly. We had to rush to the next workshop about the practice of corporate foundations. A deeper and more profound discussion would have been desirable. It was not the fault of the sympathetic moderator but rather the enthusiasm of the presenters about their foundations´work that left us with little time. They simply enjoy what they do. And that was a message in itself.

The foundation representatives want strong social impact but also strive to bring value to the company. At minimum, in terms of reputation, in maximum – well, this is up to your own interpretation. Mission aligned – mission accomplished?

Steffen Bethmann is a researcher at the Center for Philanthropy Studies at the University of Basel.

A review of the Knowledge Exchange will be published on 20 December 2016.
See here for more on the future of corporate foundations.

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