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Giving And Getting

Advice for beleagured companies picking a charity of choice.

The battle for capital in the marketplace is fierce, and it’s expected to become even fiercer. I’m not talking about the credit crunch or the burst housing bubble, though. The fight for cash I’m talking about is being waged on the fundraising battlefield. The ranks of nonprofit and public-sector players are vying for philanthropic contributions and support of upcoming bond campaigns at a record-breaking rate. And their rallying cries are aimed directly at the private sector.

Professional fundraisers in North Texas will tell you that, once the bond campaign for Parkland Hospital launches later this year, the fundraising efforts will top a record $2 billion in the region, and that’s on the conservative side. Never before, perhaps, have so many organizations been attempting to raise so much money at the same time. From health care to the homeless, air quality to education, the arts to affordable housing, the worthy causes abound. At the same time, advocates are wise to the increasing importance of the “corporate social responsibility” movement and most companies’ desires—and needs—to be perceived as good corporate citizens. So, among all the many worthy causes and requests for help, how should a company go about picking its “charity” of choice?

First, companies that already recognize the need for a formalized CSR initiative have an edge. Executives are recognizing that active community engagement and giving—beyond the traditional tax-deductible checkbook philanthropy—are important parts of corporate culture. They also see that CSR can protect their company’s reputation amid increased scrutiny and, better yet, give them a competitive advantage with employees and customers—especially if they’re identified with a well-known cause or effort.

›› Among the many criteria corporate leaders use in selecting their cause or causes of choice, considering the company’s consumer audience and stakeholders must certainly take precedence. For example, the company I work for, Mary Kay Inc., has a customer base largely made up of women and a corporate mission to “enrich women’s lives.” Because one in four women in the United States will be physically or sexually abused by a loved one at some point in their lives, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Mary Kay has a strong philanthropic focus on preventing violence against women. Similarly, Home Depot is a strong supporter of Habitat for Humanity, while the JCPenney Afterschool Fund supports the YMCA. 

“The key is consistency with the corporation’s values and the real and/or perceived value of the specific charity’s relationship to the corporation,” says former Dallas City Councilwoman Veletta Forsythe Lill, who’s now chairwoman of the Parkland Foundation Board of Directors and a key player in its upcoming bond program. Among the questions she says executives should ask themselves: “Does the charity in question have values that are consistent with the corporation’s?” If it doesn’t fit, it’s an easy way to politely decline a request for support.

›› Companies should make charitable choices that leverage existing or past philanthropic efforts and relationships. Why reinvent the wheel or start over?

›› Consider how your support can extend beyond just cash. Find out if there is an employee-volunteer effort that can supplement a donation. Studies abound showing how companies engaged in CSR are not only more likely to attract customers, but also attract—and keep—the best employees.

›› If you’re planning to donate, it makes sense to ask how your company will be recognized and ensure that the recognition aligns with your marketing goals. Beware, though: Consumers are rightly quick to see through corporate schemes that are short on giving and long on self-congratulations. But if you’re planning to give anyway, it’s OK to be tastefully recognized for it. 

›› One criterion that’s always important is impact. What will be done with your dollars, and how will they help? Mark Shank, a partner at the law firm of K&L Gates, was a key architect of the Dallas Bar Association’s capital campaign to renovate and expand the Belo Mansion in downtown Dallas. Now he’s preparing to lead “Dream Dallas,” a fundraising campaign for Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity to revitalize and build neighborhoods. 

“Impact is what potential donors should ask about,” Shank says. “Not only, for example, ‘How many families will you help put in homes?,’ but also, ‘How will those homes help with crime prevention, schools, economic development, the health of the overall community?’”

 Most corporate executives generally have a cause that is near to their hearts and give generously on a personal level. But on the corporate side, a company usually can’t give to every cause and still be financially responsible. A company can, however, have a strategy for corporate giving before the requests for help come in—and stick to it.

Crayton Webb is manager of government relations for Mary Kay Inc. Previously, he was chief of staff to Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and an investigative reporter for CBS 11.

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