Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Corporate Charity

Over the past few years we've seen a remarkable set of disasters, ranging from earthquakes in Haiti to Tsunamis in Japan.  Like many companies, yearly United Way campaigns are the norm, plus there are usually several appeals from co-workers to support various charity events for a number of different reasons.  Typically, these requests, funnelled through corporate email and sometimes with requests for support from upper management, are met with either a strong positive or a strong negative response.  This begs the question about whether such appeals are something that should be part of a corporate structure or not.

It is hard to watch events like those in Japan and not feel saddened at the toll these disasters have on individuals who lose their family, homes, livelihood, and health.  The natural instinct is to want to help, and in a corporate setting reaching out to all employees allows a ground-swell movement, with support building as co-workers donate.  When a company matches the donations, even a little bit from each employee can grow to a significant amount.  Consider the appeal for funds for Japan, which happened when I was at a company with 350 employees.  If each of the 350 employees donated $50, and with the company matching the first $5,000, we raised $22,500.  In the grand scheme of things, it's not a lot of money when millions (and soon, billions) are being spent in Japan, but the way I look at this is that if that money gives one family water, food, shelter, and hope, it dramatically alters one family's life and hence justifies the entire effort.

Annual appeals like United Way tend to be treated differently from disaster appeals.  Some people agree with blanket approaches like the United Way, some do not and prefer to target their giving more precisely.  Whether you support United Way or not, the fact that a company gets behind an annual giving campaign is a good thing.

personal appeals for funds are a third aspect of giving in the corporate environment. When these appeals come in from friends and coworkers who have a family member involved in fund raising for some reason (usually a health issue affecting themselves or their family) we tend to react at a different level than the more orchestrated national campaign levels.  Helping someone you know, or know of, is a more immediately rewarding experience than donating to a  larger effort because you have a vested interest and can see the result more tangibly.

Of course, there's always the issue of whether to donate at all or not.  These are tough economic times for many, at all levels.  Sparing an extra $50 or $100 can have a significant impact on monthly cash flows.  Sometimes it really is impossible to donate $50 to an effort without seriously affecting your ability to pay the monthly bills.  Every one of use has pressure financially for one reason or another, so the decision to donate is a personal one: you have to donate because you feel it is the right thing to do, in those circumstances, balancing your personal priorities.  When asked to give, it's often a matter of "what can I give?" in order to help.

Personally, I've given to charities and appeals for one simple reason: I hope that if I ever got hit by some catastrophic event someone would help me.  It's the nameless help that matters, and if I can believe my donation to Japan (to cite a recent event) buys one family clean water for even a day or two, then it's worth the donation.  Everyone decides what is important to them and their priorities in life.  I would never think negatively of anyone who did not want to donate, because they may need the money for some important reason.

Corporate giving is a tricky subject for more organizations.  Backing a cause tends to lend an air of obligation to it, especially annual fundraisers like the United Way.  Disaster appeals are different, and are usually interpreted as the goodwill gesture that they are intended to be.  How you participate is up to you, and it needs to be a personal decision.