New guide for corporate philanthropy launched at Council on Foundations conference


Aaron Dorfman


Aaron Dorfman

The Council on Foundations has released a new guide for corporate philanthropy during its annual conference, held in Los Angeles, 28 April-1 May. Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A practitioner’s guide to leading corporate philanthropy is an extremely thoughtful contribution to the field. I have no doubt that many who work in corporate philanthropy will find great value in it.

Without attempting to summarize the entire guide, allow me to offer a few observations about elements I liked and others I found lacking.

The guide discusses three types of philanthropic investment: responsive, strategic and catalytic. I appreciated the fact that the guide doesn’t undervalue the importance of responsive investments. In fact, when discussing how practitioners might create a balanced portfolio of these three approaches the guide states that responsive philanthropy ‘always will be the cornerstone of any corporate philanthropy program’. Thank goodness. It’s incredibly frustrating to non-profits when corporations forget that simply providing grants is actually important and helpful. Some corporations have clearly gone overboard thinking about ways they can have impact without actually giving money to effective non-profits.

I also appreciated how the guide uses many examples that show ‘targeted universalism’ in action (although the guide never uses that term). Some corporate foundations have done a good job of intentionally working to prioritize underserved or marginalized groups with their philanthropy, rather than just seeking to benefit the broader public. Targeted universalism observes that when you design your programmes to benefit a specific underserved population, that groups benefits and so does the broader public. But if you design your work to benefit the broader public, marginalized communities are often left out unintentionally. Some of the examples in the guide include:

  • Verizon’s work with the American Foundation for the Blind to design ‘a special phone to service the visually impaired’.
  • General Mills Foundation’s efforts to ‘close the achievement gap between white students and students of colour’.
  • Kaiser Permanente’s work ‘to reduce strokes and heart attacks among high-risk low-income individuals’.
  • Levi Strauss Foundation’s project that seeks to ‘improve the health of all women working in the garment industry’.

My favourite paragraph from the guide highlights the work of corporate lobbyists from Mary Kay Cosmetics working side by side with the foundation’s grantee, Break the Cycle, to advocate for legislation to prevent domestic violence. Corporate lobbyists have access that few non-profits are able to achieve, so I hope our sector can see more of these kinds of partnerships in the future.

The biggest shortcoming of the guide is that it fails to provide any suggestions for how corporate giving officers can persuade their corporations to increase philanthropic investments. The guide notes that levels of corporate giving have fallen from a high of 2.3 per cent of pre-tax profit in 1986 to a level of now approximately 1 per cent. But there are no strategies explicitly offered for how to increase the level of giving. It continually amazes me that levels of corporate giving are so low. Shouldn’t we be expecting more from our nation’s corporate sector?

Another shortcoming was a lack of honest discussion about philanthropy mitigating bad corporate practices. Sometimes corporate behaviour is actually the cause of, or a major contributor to, the most pressing social and environmental problems facing our nation and the world. How can corporate giving officers deal with that inherent tension? The guide was silent on that point.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised with the robust and clearly communicated content in this guide. I hope it helps corporate grantmakers improve their contributions to the common good.

Aaron Dorfman is executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Tagged in: Corporate philanthropy Council on Foundations Grantmaking

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