Philanthropy can be an important image and business development tool for large and small companies. It can demonstrate a commitment to community, signal values to customers, and help support a company’s work culture. But creating a company giving program can initially seem to be an overwhelming prospect to consider among the other responsibilities on a company’s plate.

Giving does not have to be daunting, and practiced strategically, can have immeasurable benefits to your business. To guide the creation of philanthropic efforts that feel authentic, three key elements are found in successful giving programs: Culture, Community, and Capacity.

Culture is the starting point of any successful giving program. Philanthropy needs to reflect and enhance the values of a company to resonate with its employees and customers – not solely the interests of its leaders or founders. Philanthropy can be a way to pass company values down through leaders or over generations, but these values should be rooted in the goals of the business rather than simply reflecting the personal interests of a leader in order to be sustainable and create meaningful impact.

As a first step, companies should take the opportunity to gather the opinions of stakeholders to determine the values its philanthropy can embody. These stakeholders can be internal, external, or a mix of both, but they should include representation from individuals with a variety of viewpoints. This feedback can inform leaders about what sorts of philanthropy would be meaningful, authentic, and welcome, both to employees and customers. The values surfaced can also shape a clear sense of purpose — why the company is engaging in philanthropy. A giving program should not be used to distract from the operations and challenges of the business, or it will be viewed as inauthentic and self-serving.

Community identifies what population is most important for the philanthropy to affect.  This could be a geographic area, a population affected by a social ill or disease, or even a set of stakeholders. For example, if a company relies heavily on its hometown for its business, it may choose to invest in addressing a critical local issue. Alternatively, if the primary purpose of a company’s giving program is to increase the morale of employees, the company may choose to invest in volunteer options, rather than direct philanthropy.

Finally, Capacity means scaling your philanthropy to the size and scope of your business, as well as to the appetite of your stakeholders. A small business is not expected to be able to solve large, societal problems, but will be viewed favorably if it can provide tangible benefit to its local community. Providing support to local nonprofit organizations should be intentional, consistent with company values, and designed to change lives rather than simply providing marketing reach.  Considering capacity may also guide the structure of your giving – whether through a company foundation, a donor advised fund, or through a company budget.  Each of these options can place different demands on staffing and finance which should be considered up front.

Philanthropy has the potential to deepen the connection a business has to its customers, employees, and society at large. It can create sticky relationships that lower the costs of acquisition and churn. It can also ensure that the company’s core values extend beyond its leadership to create a powerful company culture. However, philanthropy, like any business strategy, should be planned, executed with intent and authenticity in order to bring true value.

Carey Wirtzfeld is a co-founder of PhilanthropyConnect, a philanthropic strategy firm working across the country to help individuals, families and businesses design and implement thoughtful and impactful strategies for their community engagement.  Learn more about its work at PhilanthropyConnect is part of AEF’s Philanthropic Advisory Firm Referral Program.

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