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June 8, 2015

The changing culture of corporate philanthropy


Businesses are inextricably linked with the charitable organizations in their backyards. Look at the financials of any sizable organization, and you'll find that at least a small chunk of the profits is probably going to local charities that support needy people and worthy causes.

Bryan de Lottinville, CEO of Benevity, a Canadian software platform firm that helps companies design philanthropy programs, said the traditional corporate giving approach goes something like this: A business finds a local charity, signs on to support it through cash donations, and nudges employees to sign on in hopes the money will have a meaningful impact.

But as the attitudes of employees change, that model is becoming outdated, according to de Lottinville. He said younger employees, who have grown up in a society that offers customization in many facets of life, shy away from traditional workplace philanthropy and are asking more questions about their employers' philanthropic activities.

Consumers, too, have a keener eye for corporate responsibility efforts, de Lottinville said. He said much of it has to do with technology and instant availability of information on everything, including the many needs that exist across the globe.

“Increasingly, people have causes that resonate with them,” de Lottinville said.

That's why Benevity, which counts Google and Apple among its many U.S. customers, encourages clients to treat corporate philanthropy programs as an opportunity to engage employees, as well as to find causes to support in a way that also supports the company brand.

What does this mean for organizations that have thrived on the traditional way of doing charity?

It could be a problem. Timothy Garvin, CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts, said the gravitation toward causes has led some companies to reduce cash donations to be used at the discretion of nonprofits for the most pressing community needs, and instead focus most of their efforts on supporting a specific cause, such as early literacy, which Garvin said is receiving a lot of emphasis.

Garvin was careful to note that, in Greater Worcester, cash donations remain strong from a close-knit business community. But he said this trend could be troublesome for nonprofit charitable organizations at large. Garvin said companies should use a holistic approach, including the support of causes as well as cash donations that can be used for multiple needs.

“Learning to read when you're hungry — it doesn't work,” Garvin said.

Another challenge for nonprofits is that companies want to understand the return on their charitable investments to ensure their dollars are having a meaningful impact. That's according to Kate Myshrall, vice president of advancement at the Worcester-based Seven Hills Foundation, a nonprofit social services agency.

Myshrall said the number of nonprofits has grown, so companies are receiving more requests for donations, and they've grown savvy at sifting through them and choosing those they like.

“You need to be very savvy and thoughtful in what you're asking for — does it fit their interest?” Myshrall said.

Once a donation is made, the nonprofit must keep the corporate donor in the loop to explain how the money is being used and to what end, she said. Myshrall said that's the reality of a more competitive nonprofit field.

Thoughtfulness is part of what defines the approach of insurance giant Unum Group, which has offices in downtown Worcester, to corporate giving, said Cary Olson-Cartwright, associate vice president for corporate social responsibility. She oversees corporate giving programs at all of Unum's sites, including Portland, Maine, and the corporate headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn., as well as Worcester.

Olson-Cartwright said the company takes a blended approach, much like the one Garvin advocates. The company donated $1.1 million to Worcester-area causes in 2014, but it also maintains active vounteering programs that give employees a chance to do work that interest them in the community.

Unum employees in Worcester volunteer regularly as mentors at South High in Worcester, and at the nonprofit Girls Inc., focusing on career-readiness activities. Those activities are somewhat pragmatic, Olson-Cartwright said, because the company has a stake in ensuring that the young workforce is prepared.

“It's not just the school system's responsibility; it truly is a community effort,” she said.n

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