Something is afoot in corporate philanthropy. The evolution of business’ role in society—and the role of the foundation philanthropy within companies—is transitioning in real-time. The re-engineering occurring in all areas of business is finding its way into corporate philanthropy. What is the next phase on the horizon for corporate philanthropy, and how can the field prepare for it?
This morning, at its annual pre-conference Opening Session for Corporate Grantmakers, over 60 corporate foundations and giving programs gathered to engaged in a dialogue, “Beyond Philanthropy: The Opportunities and Challenges of Shared Value.”Drawing from a framework presented by FSG Social Impact Advisors, the audience heard from their peers and leading companies including McKesson, Cisco, and Levi Strauss about creating shared value— when a company takes ownership over a social problem integral to the company’s long-term success and leverages all its assets and expertise against this problem. This approach is emerging as the next iteration beyond strategic philanthropy and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – one where the foundation and its dollars becomes but one tool available to maximize social impact. Participants affirmed that this trend that has been percolating for the last ten years has arrived: the shift will be dramatic and disruptive.
For the leaders in the room steeped in corporate philanthropy, the case for aligning business assets with philanthropic resources for shared value presents game-changing opportunities. Participants were at various stages along the journey of transitioning to a shared value approach. But the panelists and other companies were candid about the very real challenges and risks presented by going down this road.
Embedding social change goals into the business is a messy and iterative process. It’s a concept that may be surprisingly tough for those on the business side to grasp. A foundation that catalyzes this shift will require building trusting relationships internally, as well being comfortable with the ambiguity of what might come at the end of the road. It takes incremental steps and a timeframe that may be at odds with the on-demand results of business. But, perhaps this level of “chaos” is healthy and may reflect that you’ve moved into a mature space, and are asking the right, tough questions.
Whether your company is ready to implement this shift or not (and it may not be a relevant approach for everyone), it is important as a sector for us to deliberate about the implications for our field, and for the philanthropic leaders that drive this work from within companies. The more we wrestle with these issues together, the better off we’ll be.
Elizabeth Sullivan is the director of Corporate Services at the Council on Foundations.