Philanthropy is Dead?
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Mere “balloons and t-shirts” initiatives just aren’t going to cut it today.
Awareness and outrage over the BP Deep Horizon spill has been largely aided by social networking. @BPGlobalPR, a satirical Twitter account mocking BP's attempts to mollify the public, has over 121,000 followers. The oil spill and BP have been trending topics ever since the disaster began.
With issues of this magnitude coming to light, simply throwing money at various charities or serving cake at a “community appreciation day” isn’t going to satisfy the increasingly savvy consumer or investor.
Bob Willard, an expert on corporate sustainability strategies, says it would be a “disaster” for companies to simply engage in a cheque-writing exercise to fulfill its societal duties. Chris Jarvis, co-founder and senior consultant of Realized Worth, a company specializing in corporate volunteering, also puts it bluntly.
“Once a company leaves the third stage of corporate citizenship [moving from being innovative to integrative], they no longer do philanthropy. They shouldn’t—it’s regressive,” he says. “It would be like leaving college and using kindergarten tools. Companies leaving stage three don’t use the word philanthropy. They talk about strategic partnerships.”
The charities that vice-president Dr. Cathy Barr deals with at Imagine Canada, a national program focused on promoting public and corporate giving, want to engage with companies on multiple levels so that they can find mutually beneficial goals.
And that way, companies have some skin in the game, according to Jarvis.
“The more self-interested a volunteer or a company is, the more reliable they are, because they’ve tied their well-being to [that of the charity],” he says. “No one wants to be a project. And too often, volunteering and philanthropy objectify the very people we’re trying to help because they become objects to fix or make better. [Instead] we should create some free space so they can understand that they have incredible value.
Jarvis gives the example of IBM, where Willard spent 34 years.
“IBM has forgone all fiscal giving in order to put their talent, networks, and skills at play,” he points out. “They’ve moved past giving computers [with strings attached] to giving computers [without strings] that can be used for making your community better.”
Making things better has become the core mantra of many companies that have come of age in the last decade—partly because of the merging of the invisible and real economies.
“Companies like Google have grown up in this new, highly connected technology era. And they have a new set of values,” points out Waddock. “Google’s [unofficial slogan] is ‘don’t be evil.’ It made the tough decision to pull out of China. It’s created a public good with access to information. You’re going to see many more of these companies that are born with these sets of values in them.”
As a result, CSR as executed by a separate department or committee is no longer relevant for these types of companies. In fact, the term CSR shouldn’t exist at all since it identifies a separate initiative for a business instead of being part of a natural, integrated decision-making process, says Peggie Pelosi, author of Corporate Karma.
Is this just semantics? While there’s nothing wrong with the activities that happen under a CSR mandate, fifth-stage, transformative companies like Seventh Generation and Patagonia—and arguably our top corporate citizen, Mountain Equipment Co-op—won’t do business if they can’t do it right, says Jarvis.
“The expectations of companies being more proactive, not only not doing any harm but actually doing good, have become really hard for companies to duck,” says Willard. “Governments and consumers have started to say that companies’ responsibility is to all stakeholders as opposed to shareholders.”
But how does a company reverse-engineer this stakeholder-oriented, integrated mindset? It’s difficult, since companies are limited by the current economic system— the one that still doesn’t fully take into account the invisible economy.