3 surprising HR benefits of corporate philanthropy

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Over the last few years, many words have been written about the power of corporate philanthropy and our CSR programmes. Most of us now know that studies show it increases employee engagement, improves retention rates, decreases churn and helps us recruit the brightest and the best. 

Corporate philanthropy is vital, of that there can be no doubt. It has the power to change the lives of others, not just in faraway countries but in our own communities where our employees and their families live and work. As Andrew Nisbit, Director of The Nisbet Trust, says: "thousands of small, energetic charities are stepping up to tackle significant local challenges every single day; they’re building the kind of society and communities we want to live and build businesses in.”

While there are countless reasons to take philanthropy seriously as an HR tool, for me there are a few lesser-known benefits that are just as important as the ones that grab the headlines.

1. Company philanthropy taps into the attitudes of modern employees 

Corporate giving trends are not static, and over the last couple of years they’ve been changing rapidly. While in the past, a large proportion of giving was focused on international aid, today, giving is increasingly influenced by current events closer to home. In America, spurred on by the political shift to the right under Trump and policies such as the travel ban, many more companies are choosing social justice charities over those tackling health or poverty-related issues at home and abroad.  

There’s a lot we can learn from this new direction. It ties in neatly with the fact that millennial workers are looking for meaning in their lives and careers. They want to work for companies who make a difference, and they want their leaders to speak out. In fact, 44% of millennials say they would be more loyal if their CEO took a public position on a hot news topic

Even if you look right across the company you get the sense that employees are looking for something more from the leadership, notably empathy, one of the key drivers of charity giving. According to a recent survey, 60% of employees would take less pay to work for an empathetic employer, and 77% would work longer hours. Company philanthropy is an outward manifestation of this empathy; it’s an active demonstration of the leadership’s ability to put themselves in others’ shoes, and it plays directly to the needs of today’s employees.   

2. Corporate giving programmes build inclusivity and increase access

The benefits of corporate philanthropic programmes are huge but only if you can get workers to buy in and participate. Poor take up can be a problem, but before you blame the employees take another look at the reasons. Often, it’s not that employees don’t want to take part in charity events, it’s that they just can’t. Maybe they have caring responsibilities which restrict their ability to engage after hours; or maybe they have disability-related access issues with this event, or perhaps they find loud, over-excitable group activities psychologically uncomfortable.

The first step to a successful corporate-giving strategy therefore is to break down all the barriers to participation. Take time to research all the giving options and make sure there is something that every employee can engage in, even if this means developing not just one big idea but a series of micro-giving campaigns linked to personal challenges; activities that can be undertaken alone or at home.  

This kind of approach pays dividends. According to a study by O.C. Tanner, 71% of employees who work at companies that organise multiple holiday charitable events think that this motivates them to do their best work; and 57% think it has a significant positive impact on morale. It also helps the business focus on barriers to inclusivity and access across the company in a different way – one that cuts across hierarchies, and starts a new conversation by shining a spotlight on the real-life challenges faced by your own employees.

3. Corporate philanthropy teaches and demonstrates authenticity

Authenticity is a hugely overused buzzword that many of us in the corporate world could probably live without hearing again for as long as we live. But it is a real thing, and it is increasingly important in HR terms. In fact, one of the big changes over the last decade has authenticity at its heart. 

Since the economic crisis of 2008, there had been a sea change in the way people view what they see as ‘the establishment’, and this includes corporations. They no longer trust big business, and they take nothing at face value. And whether we like it or not, this niggling cynicism is felt by employees too. Today, when a large international business launches a philanthropic campaign, many people, including workers, will simply discount it as either a tax dodge or a desperate ploy to repair a damaged reputation. 

This gives us a big challenge. But it’s one that philanthropy can help us with. Rather than just going for one of the big flagship charities, or overseas non-profits, corporations should be looking instead to local community projects. Funding the people on your doorstep looks and feels authentic because it is. People can see you’re not doing it for the media coverage. There is nowhere to hide, and your employees and their families can benefit directly. This builds employee engagement and shows them that you’re not doing it for any reason other than to help people in their community. This is authenticity in action, and we could all do well to learn how it operates in practice.

These are just three of the more surprising benefits of corporate philanthropy. As attitudes change and the workforce evolves, companies should be focusing on this type of soft benefit because these are the ones which will ensure future company success. 

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