September 17, 2013; Philanthropy News Digest


Two recent articles make the case for strategic corporate philanthropy. And while the authors come at the topic from different angles, they agree that when corporate foundation or corporate social responsibility leaders align programs with causes that matter to their businesses, the investments yield many types of dividends.

Christine Park, president of the New York Life Foundation, offers the example of the impact her organization has had in addressing childhood bereavement. She notes that while as many as one in seven Americans loses a parent or sibling before age 20, grieving children are a surprisingly overlooked group. Since New York Life deals with families in times of grief, this cause resonates with people throughout the organization. As she explains, “…we practice advocacy with a lower-case ‘a’—with a focus on raising awareness, education, and public concern for issues where there is a clear and compelling need and little rational dispute as to the merits of the issue.”

Since adopting the “under-attended-to issue” of grieving children, the foundation has been able not only to invest resources (more than $13 million since 2007) in supporting grieving children, they’ve also been able to shine a bright spotlight on the topic and shape the national conversation about the needs of these children. They’ve forged strong partnerships with a number of leading nonprofits in the field, such as the Moyer Foundation and the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, and fostered alliances across nonprofits in this category.

Doug Conant, former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company and chairman of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), likens corporate giving and corporate social responsibility to R&D—“a discovery phase in investment in a social issue.” He sees philanthropic investments as “incubators for promising ideas and a mechanism for understanding both community and corporate needs.”

Conant cites examples from his tenure with Campbell Soup, including corporate and foundation initiatives to halve the company’s environmental footprint, partner with the American Heart Association to address consumer health concerns, and address issues relating to both childhood obesity and hunger.

“I observed that the more we leveraged our business resources to deliver social value to the communities around us, the more engaged our employees became and the better we performed in the marketplace,” Conant states.

Conant also references initiatives from other companies: IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge, a competitive grant program that sends teams of employees into cities around the world to address community issues; and Vodafone’s philanthropic investment in mobile banking services in rural Africa, which eventually led to a larger business investment in the region.

Both Park and Conant cite the benefits of aligning philanthropy with business-related causes—not only in terms of brand reputation and “incubating” business ideas, but also in terms of executive and employee engagement.

Park notes that the childhood bereavement cause actually filtered up to the foundation through the company’s network of agents; and that “championing an aligned cause increases employees’ pride and participation in the foundation’s work and, quite frankly, yields greater senior executive endorsement and financial support from the company.”

Conant underscores the potential for professional development through skills-based volunteering aligned with philanthropic causes. “Many IBM employees report that the Smarter Cities Challenge was one of the most rewarding experiences of their careers. In short, it’s a priceless program for professional development and employee engagement that IBM could not have purchased through the market.”

At a time when corporate foundations and grantmakers are under as much pressure as anyone to demonstrate their strategic value to the businesses they represent, these leaders make strong cases for continued investment in philanthropy.—Eileen Cunniffe