Rick CohenA “Paradigm Shift” for Corporate Philanthropy

By: Rick Cohen In: 2012 Annual Conference| Corporate Philanthropy

29 Apr 2012

Last year’s Council on Foundations Annual Meeting was held before the Occupy Wall Street movement highlighted the role and power of corporate America in this nation’s wealth divide. Even then, according to Chris Pinney of the Aspen Institute, one of the researchers behind the new Council report on corporate philanthropy, Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leading Corporate Philanthropy, corporate foundation grantmakers felt “disconnected.”

It must be even more difficult since the occupiers targeted Wall Street and a spin-off, the 99% Power Movement, is marching on corporate shareholder meetings. Think of the quandary of corporate foundation staff, seen by the critics as factotums for a corporate agenda, seen from within their corporations as “do-gooders” perhaps not as connected to the “strategic” corporate agenda as bottom line-focused employees, and seen by themselves as people engaged, or wanting to be engaged, in philanthropy.

Pinney suggested corporate philanthropy is in that dreaded moment of “paradigm shift.” This is usually a term contributed by consultants and think tankers, but maybe it does apply in the corporate world as well. The report is apparently a framework for thinking, not a prescription for corporate grantmakers to follow, but Pinney put the meeting and Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value in context:  “We need a new narrative about who we are, a narrative about value creation, how we’re creating more value for society.”

Corporate philanthropists exist in a world of competing, emerging narratives and social value. Without referencing the protests convulsing parts of our society, Pinney noted an anomaly in the narrative, a survey finding that said 60 percent of Americans think that business is best equipped to solve our nation’s social problems, compared to a much smaller percentage (in the teens) who would turn to government. Is that a finding that reflects a positive view of corporations or a deepening negative attitude (that some of us consider most unfortunate and unwarranted) about government? 

Regardless of the explanation behind the finding, Pinney added to the challenge facing corporate philanthropists:  “How does business provide that leadership” to solve social problems…and “how does corporate philanthropy help provide that leadership?”  In the duality of the lives of corporate philanthropists, wanting to use corporate philanthropy to do good and wanting their corporate peers to see the value of philanthropy to the business, it is undoubtedly a challenging narrative tightrope.

Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value articulates a five-point agenda for thinking, discussion, and action within corporate philanthropy:

1. Creating a new narrative for corporate philanthropy: Pinney talked about philanthropy as “social investment” and noted that corporate philanthropists in other countries prefer “social investment” rather than philanthropy as the term of art.

2. Developing an inclusive operating system: Integrating three types of corporate philanthropy: (1) responsive (basically local causes), (2) strategic (aligned with the corporation’s business agenda), and (3) catalytic (or transformative, for business and social innovation and change.

3. Professionalizing the field.

4. Improving collaboration and knowledge sharing: Many of the issues addressed by corporate philanthropy call for multiple actors and sectors, but a lot of them operate in narrow siloes without capturing that benefit.

5. Mobilizing field-level leadership behind this new corporate agenda.

There is much to debate here. Is the paradigm shift really one of corporate philanthropy positioned as integral to corporate social responsibility? Where is the voice of the line workers in these corporations, people whose “philanthropy,” often through payroll deduction, is as generous as any giving in the nation and frequently a good pointer for the “responsive” philanthropic agenda of corporations? Corporate philanthropy will come up again later in the conference as speakers talk about social change.

Rick Cohen is a columnist with the NonProfit Quarterly.

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