Corporate Philanthropy: Totals Up, Skepticism Down?

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June 22, 2016; Fortune

“Corporate philanthropy” may sound like an oxymoron to some, yet according to a Fortune article published last week, twenty Fortune 500 companies are demonstrating that deep private-sector investment in charitable causes might not be so farfetched.

The top-20 list spotlights the usual suspects like Wal-Mart, Bank of America, and Google’s new holding company, Alphabet, and breaks down each entity’s percentage of giving and total cash contributions, as made available. Among the charitable endeavors supported are HIV/AIDS research and treatment, workforce education, minimizing hunger, and, ironically, Coca Cola’s dabbling in the clean drinking water and healthy living spaces. Companies were also recognized for being generous in providing employees with time off to volunteer as well as with opportunities to participate in mentorship and leadership programs facilitated by local nonprofits.

Philanthropy in the for-profit world has long been a topic of interesting debate. As NPQ pointed out in 2014, the idea of companies being responsible for anything other than their bottom lines has drawn criticism from economists and shareholders alike. One particular political critic went so far as to suggest that corporate philanthropy was comparable to theft. Michael O’Neill observes in his book Nonprofit Nation that “only 25 percent of U.S. companies claim any charitable tax deductions and only 10 percent contributions of more than a nominal sum. In 1999, just 209 of the nation’s corporations accounted for 31 percent of all corporate giving.” O’Neill also notes that, over the past 25 years, corporate giving has generally reflected the economic cycle and remained remarkably steady at one percent of corporate pretax profits.

A look at the historical numbers summarizing this source of funding for nonprofit organizations might suggest that many of those holding the corporate purse strings agree that businesses have no business in the giving-back business. In other words, corporate philanthropy has notoriously represented a thin slice of the philanthropic pie, as compared to individual and foundation giving. However, the Giving USA numbers released earlier this month paint a somewhat rosier picture for philanthropy overall. Not only did charitable giving in America reach an all-time high, but each funding source category also experienced growth, with corporate giving accounting for $18.45 billion of the total $373.25 billion contributed. Specifically, giving in the corporate sector experienced a 3.9 percent increase over its 2014 totals, the second-largest increase after foundation giving.

As corporate giving inches its way upward, companies strive for more focus in their charitable work to align with factors that resonate with their target markets, such as needs of the community in which they are headquartered or causes that are in line with the product or service they provide.

Corporate philanthropy has a long way to go before it even approaches the generosity of individual donors, who contribute at least 80 percent of the nation’s charitable dollars each year through gifts and bequests. As giving totals across all funding sources increase, the nonprofit sector as a whole remains reliant on its loyal individual benefactors, while gaining confidence that their corporate friends will continue to stick around.—Lindsay Walker