What to Make of the Nation’s 50 Most Civic-Minded Corporations

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December 5, 2013; BusinessWire

The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), Points of Light, and Bloomberg released their second annual Civic 50 list of the 50 most “community-minded” corporations in the S&P 500. Given the increasing levels of challenge to corporations from nonprofit activism, as well as the increasing levels of corporate philanthropy upon which many nonprofits survive, the Civic 50 list probably poses a quandary for many nonprofits. Should they celebrate these 50 corporations, or question them on corporate practices that sometimes seem less than community-minded?

The Civic 50 list for 2013, announced yesterday (Thursday), is provocative for its inclusions and exclusions, some of which are noted here:

  • Twelve of the 50 are financial companies: Allstate, Ameriprise, Discover, KeyCorp, State Street, Total System Services, Weyerhaeuser Financials, Citigroup, Western Union, Bank of America, Capital One, and Morgan Stanley. Goldman Sachs and American Express were on the inaugural list in 2012, but not included in 2013. Many observers might find this list troubling, as Bank of America and Citi were both signatories to a $25 billion multi-bank settlement with the federal government for their mortgage lending mishaps that resulted in millions of Americans facing foreclosures, and were recently upbraided by the independent monitor of the settlement for violating the terms of the agreement. Nonetheless, financial services firms constitute the largest industry segment in the Civic 50. For nonprofits, financial services firms such as Bank of America, Citi, Morgan Stanley, and Allstate are always close to the top of lists of the most generous corporate philanthropic grantmakers.
  • Five are in the “consumer staples” sector: The five are Campbell Soup, Hershey, Altria, Dr. Pepper Snapple, and Wal-Mart Stores. (Altria is the big tobacco company that owns Philip Morris, the nation’s largest cigarette company.) When nonprofits and foundations compile socially responsible investment priorities, usually they eliminate investments in the tobacco companies. The controversies surrounding Walmart’s pay scales, with large percentages of employees receiving government subsidies because of their low wages, and anti-union attitudes have been well documented in the NPQ Newswire, but it is a huge generator of local philanthropic giving in the communities in which it has its big box operations. Falling off the list from last year were Target, H.J. Heinz, and Starbucks, the latter having generated some high profile programs in the past couple of years with strong philanthropic angles (its Vote.Give.Grow campaign and its support of community development financial institutions in a program with the Opportunity Finance Network).

The Civic 50 list isn’t a list of top corporate philanthropies or a list of the corporations deemed to be the best employers in terms of fair wages and treatment of labor organizing, but a list of corporations that have made aspects of their corporate culture the most community-oriented. The list groups the winning corporations into five categories:

  • Civic Commitment: how extensively the company applies its resources to civic improvement. 1. Morgan Stanley; 2. Capital One Financial; 3. Bank of America; 4. Apollo Education Group; and 5. Alcoa
  • Strategic Investment: how the company strategically directs assets and activates resources from other institutions and individuals to maximize community impact. 1. Apollo Education Group; 2. General Electric; 3. Bank of America; 4. Western Union; 5. IBM
  • Business Integration: how a company’s community engagement activities align with its business interests. 1. FedEx; 2. Raytheon; 3. Hewlett-Packard; 4. Capital One Financial; 5. Campbell Soup
  • Fostering Civic Culture: how broadly community engagement is supported and institutionalized within a company’s policies, systems and incentives. 1. Aetna; 2. Hewlett-Packard; 3. Morgan Stanley;4. Western Union; 5. Campbell Soup
  • Measuring Impact: how a company measures the social value and business value of its community engagement programs. 1. Hewlett-Packard; 2. Morgan Stanley; 3. Capital One Financial; 4. Hershey; 5. Raytheon

The Civic 50 list challenges how nonprofits—and the public—think about corporations and their commitment to community. Some people might think highly of the community engagement of healthcare firms such as Aetna and United Healthcare, while others might think they are the avatars of the insurers whose policies have led to today’s broken health insurance system that the Affordable Care Act was enacted to remedy. The Gap and Apollo Education are among the top corporations in the “consumer discretionary” category in the list, but Gap is still frequently criticized for its sweatshop policies (most recently in Bangladesh), and Apollo owns the University of Phoenix, the mammoth online for-profit higher education outfit that has been the subject of Congressional criticism and more recently challenges to its accreditation.

Nonprofits have to ask themselves which is more important: the volunteerism and philanthropy offered by corporations such as the Civic 50 businesses (volunteerism clearly being a major factor in this list) or their business practices relating to labor rights, public health, and the environment?—Rick Cohen