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Is There Anything New In Corporate Philanthropy?

October 3, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting sponsored by The Conference Board where a senior leader asserted that there haven't been any innovations in corporate philanthropy since the chairman of GE invented employee matching gifts in 1954.

This is a pretty damning statement – particularly since it's not true.

Sure, employee matching gift programs were a terrific innovation, but those managers at GE in the 1950's wouldn't recognize corporate philanthropy today. In the 1950's and 60's, corporate philanthropy was dominated by a programmatic philosophy of being a good citizenship by distributing checks to many different organizations – usually in small amounts for unrestricted purposes – in order to be seen as supporting lots of causes. In fact, employee matching gift programs mirrored this philosophy – sowing small amounts of money to thousands of worthy organizations that were important to employees.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, but the concept of strategic philanthropy – of trying to marry the community need with the business interests of the company – a concept that virtually all corporate philanthropy professionals buy into today, didn't get started until the 1980's. Promoted by pioneers like Reynold Levy at AT&T and Stan Litow at IBM, the first attempts to be strategic and use philanthropy as a way to achieve business objectives – while still meeting important community needs – were not immediately embraced by other practitioners in the field. But, surely this approach was innovative.

Likewise, corporate social responsibility -- focusing on how a company operates rather than just what it does – didn't really get going until the 1990's and still isn't universally accepted in the corporate philanthropy community. But its premise – that companies have considerably more impact in the way they operate than just the way they give – would be foreign to those corporate managers of the 1950's.

And, the emphasis that companies now place on mobilizing their employees through volunteering, pro-bono work and sabbaticals is also a fairly recent development. While the Telephone Pioneers of America has existed as an industry-wide volunteer organization for 100 years, companies are far more sophisticated in the way that they mobilize their most precious resource – their people – now than they ever were before.

Dollars for doers programs (making contributions to organizations where employees volunteer – surely an innovation) and pro-bono consulting programs are relatively recent additions to the corporate philanthropy portfolio. Cause marketing programs didn't exist before American Express invented them in the early 1980's. On-line voting and crowd sourcing as a way of distributing contributions didn't start until five years ago (American Express, Pepsi and Chase being the primary users). Global philanthropy – also a relatively recent phenomenon–is a growing part of the corporate philanthropy portfolio.

That's not to say that looking for the next big idea isn't something that we should all pay more attention to. Quite the contrary. But, I think there have been plenty of innovations in corporate philanthropy since 1954, and I'm anticipating more such inventions in the years to come.

What about you? What do you think? Let us know by clicking here.


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