How to Win at Corporate Philanthropy

After the seemingly endless string of natural disasters that have befallen the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean since late August, there has been one silver lining: it has created one of the single largest philanthropic moments in Western history. Private sector donations total in the hundreds of millions, with that number likely to continue growing as needs continue to arise.

While federal recovery funds will total well into the billions, these private funds have served a critical need, especially early in the recovery process and in places like the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where public sector relief bodies have been limited in their ability to provide for the basic human needs of shelter, clothing, food and health care.

But corporate philanthropy isn’t nearly as simple as it seems. And in the middle of a fast-moving and unpredictable event like a hurricane or wildfire, giving in a meaningful and impactful way can seem like a moving target. Alan H. Fleischmann, founder & CEO of Laurel Strategies, a global business advisory and strategic communications firm for leaders and CEOs, discusses strategies companies can use to make the most of their philanthropic efforts.

He has counseled clients who were initially planning to make a donation that seemed substantial as a storm approached, but then had to quickly add zeroes as they saw other companies and philanthropists engage in what felt like an arms race of generosity. Their goal was unambiguously to do good, but they couldn’t ignore that even the best of intentions could create unintended risk that their generosity would be perceived as insufficient or poorly targeted.

The key to successful corporate philanthropy is casting aside the one-size-fits-all approach and giving in a way that is unique to each company and leader. There’s no question that writing large checks is critically important, but leaders should think about going one step further. In addition to offering vital financial support, think about the resources and expertise that your company has to give.

Sending volunteers to a disaster site in the immediate aftermath may not be needed, but in the weeks and months that follow, experts who can volunteer their time can make a real difference.

IBM and Microsoft supplied technology services in Houston after Harvey, UPS pitched in with trucks and logistics support to make sure critical material reached those in need, and AT&T is providing free cellular data service to support communications in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Maria. These contributions are powerful because they reinforce each company’s identity and unique value.

The most successful philanthropic efforts were also those that effectively leveraged the passions and interests of employees. We are living at a time when people are increasingly looking for jobs that give them purpose and reflect their values. Employees are eager for a chance to focus their efforts on things that matter – both inside and outside of the office. Companies like AT&T, Starbucks, and Amazon have supported relief efforts with employee matching challenges, while Facebook matched donations given by anyone who gave on the platform for Harvey relief.

There is (almost) no wrong way to do philanthropy. Every company who stepped up to support people in Texas, Mexico, Puerto Rico, or any other area impacted by these natural disasters, deserves praise and gratitude.

But under the intense spotlight of 24/7 media and hyper customer awareness, every decision a leader makes can create risk and unintended backlash. Good intentions can quickly go bad. That’s why every decision a CEO makes must be carefully planned, calibrated and executed.

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