Should corporate philanthropy be neutral?


Gwen Romack


The paradox of neutrality doesn’t stop at the doors of giving platforms. Corporations must also examine how the donors and recipients on these platforms align with their corporate values. Consider a company that publishes an annual Corporate Social Responsibility (‘CSR’) report that touts their stance against human rights abuses, their support of inclusion and equality, and their non-negotiable expectation for ethical conduct from all business partners. Then imagine it’s time for the corporate philanthropy team to start planning the company’s annual ‘giving week,’ where corporate or major donor funds will be used to match employee contributions through a giving platform. Employees feel good about being able to easily find worthy causes and even better, amplify their charitable donations through corporate matching. It’s a win-win, right? Now overlay the many issues we’ve discussed around the neutrality paradox. How does a corporation work with the platform provider to vet the recipients against their corporate values? Should they?

Of course, the same treacherous and slippery slope of deciding who, what and why to make discretionary limits becomes evident quickly. But, can corporations turn a blind eye to the issue under the blanket of neutrality’? Further consider the increase in employee activism across industries. More than 1,000 employees at Google petitioned leadership not to pursue or accept contracts with United States immigration agencies, highlighting the various human rights violations cited in a stream of media reports. Workers at Walmart protested the sale of guns in the company’s stores following two mass shootings. And Wayfair employees staged a similar protest, walking off the job to protest the company’s agreement to furnish migrant detention centers in the US. A 2019 study found that over a third of American employees have spoken up to support or criticize their employer’s actions over an issue that affects society and I predict 2020 data will show a significant spike in that percentage.

So, what can corporations do? Spoiler alert: they can’t stay neutral. I recommend integrating the often-isolated philanthropy paradigm into existing corporate structures for decision-making around values and ethics. For example:

  • Facilitate regional annual conversations with business and support function leadership in all key markets to align on any new issues emerging in the sector (#MeToo, Immigration, etc.) and flag any local organisations gathering negative attention.
  • Ask leaders to incorporate these conversations into their regular business strategy efforts and report back to a single team within corporate philanthropy. Are there customers they intend to avoid due to potential backlash or mis-alignment with corporate values? If so, who and why?
  • Confer with the company’s ethics & compliance team about how 3rd party due diligence decisions are made – on what criteria would the company choose not to do business with a supplier, channel partner or business intermediary? Shouldn’t those same criteria apply here?
  • Corporate philanthropy teams should start asking platform providers (or challenging themselves if using a home-grown solution) to provide some mechanism to filter out recipients that meet certain criteria (focus of their mission by topic, whether the organisation self-identifies to any particular religious or geo-political affiliation, etc.)

Then comes the hard part, making decisions based on these inputs and determining whether to inform employees you’ve made them. This is where the board, C-suite and key thought leaders in the company need to come together and have a messy ‘neutrality paradox’ conversation and make tough decisions about how and where to draw lines. Missteps could easily result in employee backlash by those feeling that organisations aligned to their personal values were excluded or worse, those misaligned to their personal values given preference. This is where a strong, clear and well-articulated corporate culture is brought to bear. And where having a brilliant corporate communications team will be critical.

I’d like to share a personal anecdote on the transparency part. I found myself shocked and impressed when the CEO of a former employer stood up at a senior leadership meeting and told us that he wanted any employee with concerns about the ethics of a potential deal or customer to bring it to him directly. At first, I thought it was a well-placed plug from the ethics department. But, he continued, explaining that the leadership had been recently struggling about whether to accept business from a foreign government who would be using the company’s technology to engage in activities considered broadly to be on the slippery slope to human rights violations. These weren’t obvious and scandalous violations, but the more technical kind that require some dot-connecting to see the potential harm to their citizens. He discussed the details of the dilemma with us to help us see it wasn’t black and white. He explained his job was to balance (see also: juggle) the value proposition of this deal to shareholders, the potential damage or help to the company’s reputation in the media, alignment to corporate values and the safety of employees in that country against whom this technology would be used. He didn’t give us a magic answer, but we had the conversation. He challenged us to really think about it and not turn a blind eye when we see indicators that customers may be looking to use the company’s technology for questionable purposes. Then he told us to lay that at his feet. It was powerful and gave me incredible respect for the CEO and the company culture that so easily accepted the discussion.

One thing is certain, companies won’t have the luxury of avoiding this topic under the guise of neutrality much longer. Corporate philanthropy teams should get started with the uncomfortable conversations and strategic planning now.

Gwen Romack is an Ethics, Compliance and Anti-Corruption Executive. Most recently, the Senior Director of Legal & Regulatory Compliance for VMware, Gwen has also held leadership roles across VMware and previously, Hewlett-Packard – including Global Ethics & Compliance, Anti-Corruption, U.S. Public Sector Compliance, SAAS, Cloud SW, Services, Enterprise Solutions, and Operations.

Tagged in: neutrality paradox

Comments (8)

Rob Christie

I’m not sure I want my employer making those kind of choices. Good topic! Not something that I've ever thought about.


Lesley Handy

Great article Gwen. These are issues that we need to make sure we actively embrace vs assume that “all’s well that ends well. “

Allison W.

Well said! The reputational implications for large corporations in this space are real and I'm glad to see that solutions are being explored.

Julie B

Wow! Great article that lays out the very real truths. Corporations can no longer stay neutral or simply say what sounds good. It’s a call to action and she gives great insight on how to initiate change.


Companies can no longer ride the fence. It’s time to align actions to values.

Steve G

I never thought about the implications in large corporations. Great discussion!


Wow! Never thought of this. Great article!

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