Happy February! This week HBG’s Monique Miller shares her insights on researching companies and the various ways that they incorporate giving and philanthropy in to their community and global strategies. She found some useful resources as well, so if you research companies or engage them as philanthropic partners, you’re sure to find this week’s article helpful. ~Helen
Ever since I was little, I’ve been interested in processes and complex problems – how things work, how people think, how to understand the world, and how to make it a better place for everyone. So it makes sense that I ended up working in this field, making use of various kinds of information to help mission-driven organizations do their great work.
Soon after arriving at HBG, I started on projects that involved researching corporate philanthropy such as creating company profiles, and prospecting for companies whose missions and interests might fit with those of clients. As I got deeper in, I realized corporate philanthropy is a unique creature and one that would require strategy and focus to yield useful results.
While I’m still refining my approach and tools – and I’ve found these vary depending on the organizations I’m researching and working with – I thought I’d share a few things I’ve noticed about my evolving process in case it’s useful in your work. Maybe it will further conversations at our organizations and beyond around company giving.
Starting with the organization(s)
This is pretty common sense, but I’ve found sometimes that in my excitement to get to work I can be at risk of forgetting why I’m doing this in the first place. This is especially the case when I find myself dealing with a lot of information about a particular company or companies. I’ve found it helpful to ask as a start: What kinds of information are important to my organization? How do my clients like it organized? What kinds of prospects are they looking for? Local, national, particular industries? Understanding who your organization or client is makes for much more effective work. Beyond that, I’ve found profile and prospecting templates can also be really helpful starting places to guide my thinking, especially if I keep them brief at first. I’ve noticed that, ultimately, each research product ends up being a little different depending on the context.
I also take a long and deep look at corporate websites. For me, this can be a fairly daunting experience particularly when looking at large well-established national or international companies. I’ve sometimes found it helpful to go to some trusted resources, such as Inside Philanthropy for guidance. The good folks over there have already sifted through a lot of information for us, and they provide helpful corporate and foundation summaries that have given me threads to follow.
Some other things I’ve noticed:
Corporate Social Responsibility statements can be helpful
According to Harvard Business School, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) refers to the idea that a “business has a responsibility to the society that exists around it” (Stobierski, April 2021). These statements can be helpful in determining whether a company would be a good fit with your organization. I’ve noticed that sometimes, a company’s strategy is clear and their philanthropy clearly aligns. Other times, it seems there is poor coordination or there isn’t a coherent strategy at all. This, compounded with vast amounts of data dispersed in different places, can make it hard to make sense of what you’re reading. This is where I’ve found conversations with clients can again be helpful. Are there particular types of gifts they’re interested in, say, by dollar amount, by topic, or certain years? Giving patterns can help you deduce a strategy when one might not be explicit.
Corporations can have more than one giving vehicle
According to Inside Philanthropy (2022) a corporate foundation is a private foundation whose money is contributed by a for-profit business. They rarely have an endowment and grant-making is often tied to the company’s geography or target market. Corporate foundation giving can be very focused, particularly when tied to a philanthropic strategy; sometimes company foundations have a formal grant application process and sometimes they don’t (or it’s not clear or available). Sometimes grants are administered through a donor advised fund (DAF) housed at a community foundation or other sponsoring organization such as a bank.
In researching foundations, I noticed that gift reporting in Form-990s is always a few years behind. I’ve tried to fill those gaps by doing web searching or looking for gifts from a company foundation that are reported in grantees’ annual reports. This has impacted my ability to be conclusive about giving strategies when I can’t find one on the web. I couldn’t conclude, for example, based on a few gifts I found in the news from 2020 that all corporate foundation giving was to X organization or in support of X type of organization for that year.
- Corporate Giving Programs
Corporate giving programs seem to take the shape of grants/gifts, employee matching, company sponsored employee volunteering, event sponsorships (get ready to get cozy with your favorite web browser to find these!), and more. These programs can sometimes align with a stated philanthropic strategy or CSR statement (where they exist), but oftentimes I’ve had to try to deduce a strategy based on the philanthropy I find from a company. And sometimes that’s not possible because of the large number of varied gifts and I have to be strategic about what gets reported/analyzed. Again, checking in with my team helps here so I avoid going down a rabbit hole and potentially inundating my readers with information.
Due diligence continues to be important, possibly even more than ever
Like me, you may have noticed that the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with increasing discussion of systemic inequalities, may be pushing companies toward greater commitments to social justice causes and positive social change. These commitments inspire hope that a better world is on the way. At the same time, this moment may require us to scrutinize potential donors, ourselves, and our own organizations even more than ever before. As others have suggested (for example Scutari, June 2020), this moment of great financial vulnerability and strong need for change will require that we have thoughtful conversations and ask difficult questions. We will need to make decisions about where we want to draw the line on accepting gifts from particular donors (corporations or otherwise). My sense is that this is best done collectively and thoughtfully, and, thanks to our colleagues in prospect research and nonprofits, these discussions have already been happening. My hope is that we can keep this going and play an active role in positively shaping the future of the nonprofit world and beyond for everyone.
A couple of other resources
- An easy-to-read article on the difference between Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG): https://www.thebalance.com/corporate-social-responsibility-csr-4772443
- A slightly more jargony article discussing CSR, ESG, and responsible investing: https://utglsi.medium.com/differences-between-esg-sri-csr-impact-investing-and-philanthropy-4316033e7198
Inside Philanthropy. (2022, January 24). IP explainer: What is a corporate foundation? https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2022/1/24/ip-explainer-what-is-a-corporate-foundation
Scutari, M. (2020, June 25). Scrutiny of donors and ‘reputation laundering’ is growing thanks to COVID and protests. Inside Philanthropy. https://www.insidephilanthropy.com/home/2020/6/24/scrutiny-of-donors-and-reputation-laundering-is-growing-thanks-to-covid-and-protests
Stobierski, T. (2021, April 8). Types of corporate social responsibility to be aware of. Harvard Business School Online. https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/types-of-corporate-social-responsibility