Christmas giving

Corporates should not assume the metrics of success in business must be the same in philanthropy, or for the charities they support.

The Christmas season is here and, despite the marketing of consumption that is inevitable at this time of year, it is also a season when many people think of others, particularly those less fortunate than themselves.

This Christmas spirit is not limited to individuals. In the corporate world, Christmas giving takes many forms, from donation boxes collecting gifts for disadvantaged communities, to forming armies of volunteer labour to distribute those gifts.

This Christmas, we can expect Australian businesses to make a significant contribution as part of the $17.5b they give in cash, in-kind and goods and services over the course of a year (Giving Australia 2016 report).

For anyone interested in expanding the culture of philanthropy in Australia, this significant level of corporate giving needs to be recognised and valued. This also makes it all the more important that we ensure it is actually effective.

Corporate philanthropists might well assume that their success in business automatically translates into expertise in philanthropy, yet the impact of corporate philanthropy is not always what it could be.

This is partly because corporate philanthropists sometimes assume the same rules apply in both their business and charitable work, when in fact success in business differs significantly from charitable impact.

Some corporate philanthropists go further, lecturing charities on how to be more successful by emulating the principles that apply in business, which assumes the metrics of success in business must be the same in philanthropy, or for the charities they support.

I’ve heard these attitudes from corporate philanthropists so many times, I’ve started to call it bizsplaining: like mansplaining, but what businesses do to charities.

But when corporate philanthropists do this, they often miss the key elements of success in philanthropy; in work to improve the welfare of others.

If business success is measured in size and scale then so too should be charitable impact, bizsplaining assumes. Yet this assumption ignores the critical impact of small initiatives at a local level, where communities are both involved in identifying the problems affecting them and in the solutions to them.

Where corporate governance entails board meetings with formal meeting procedure, bizsplainers expect the same processes from charity boards. Yet charities are transforming their decision-making processes in precisely the opposite direction, as social policies like consumer-directed care and self-determination forge new and far more participatory ways for people to make the decisions that affect them.

While bizsplaining is mostly naïve, rather than malevolent, it is a key barrier to the effectiveness of corporate philanthropy. In fact, it risks completely masking the lessons of how best to achieve and sustain philanthropic impact.

For corporate philanthropy to be effective, it needs to recognise it is part of an ecosystem; to value the expertise of charities it supports and the lived experience of vulnerable people and communities.

And that means working in partnership with those charities and communities.

I’ve seen how effective corporate philanthropy can be when it is pursued through partnership. I’ve worked with corporate philanthropists who follow up a financial grant to a charity by asking what else is needed; who listen to the response; and who explore what they can do to help meet that need.

It might be by giving a charity access to the skills of their workforce, such as financial managers, communications experts or web designers. It might be by leveraging their relationships with other corporates to bring new and varied support to a charity’s mission. It might be by introducing each of their charity partners to each other, to support peer learning and build capability.

Whatever the approach, this kind of philanthropy through partnership achieves significantly more impact than a financial grant alone.

Of course, charities have to support philanthropists to work through partnership. We have to be willing to invest in our relationships with philanthropic supporters. We have to share our values; to show why we take one approach and not another; to explain the outcomes we are working towards.

But the return on that investment is not just a positive relationships with our philanthropic supporters. The return on that investment is a significantly increased capacity to achieve our mission, the very purpose for which charities exist in the first place.

So this Christmas, as your workplace is encouraging your philanthropic spirit, find out more about the charities and communities you’re supporting. Ask the charity workers you meet how they identify need; what impact they value. Ask how the people or communities you’re trying to help are involved in the decision-making process.

Take this information back to your colleagues, friends and family members. Because every step you take towards this kind of understanding and respect is a step towards philanthropy through partnership; a step towards greater impact from corporate philanthropy.

Dr Tessa Boyd-Caine is Fulbright Professional Scholar in Nonprofit Leadership and the CEO of Health Justice Australia

These ideas are developed further in Tessa’s recent talk at the TEDxFulbrightSydney.