Commentary: “Visibility” and Corporate Foundations

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A goal of Smart Assets is to present ideas and develop discussions about issues in philanthropy. Those issues can be sensitive or volatile. While we want to encourage a space where people can openly say what they want, an occasional commentator may feel uncomfortable about writing under his or her own name. This is one such case, and the writer has chosen to remain anonymous.

As I read “Philanthropy As ‘Invisible Aid'”, I thought to myself that while private foundations need to do a better job of communicating their good works, specifically the work of their grantees, for the most part corporate foundations care very much about “visibility” and invest a lot in communications. In fact, rarely is there a grant agreement that doesn’t include a visibility plan. Unfortunately, more often than not this visibility is more for the benefit of the company and the company brand and has less to do with the grantee as the main focal point. Some corporate foundations in fact are within the media relations or communications departments of their parent company.

I may be stating the obvious, but a successful visibility effort in the corporate foundation world translates to “media hits” and how many times the name of the foundation (which 9 times out of 10 includes the name of the company) appears in different publications (which are targeted in areas where the company does business). A successful visibility plan does not track how many new donors the grantee was able to recruit as a result of this or if the grantee is better able to handle their own external communications.

Visibility in the papers, radio, or TV is often a one-way communication tool. Maybe the new media vehicles can help the dialogue be more interactive—although it starts to become confusing and overwhelming pretty fast. These visibility efforts do little to affect the public discourse. And because there is such pressure to keep being innovative and fund the next greatest new thing, there is no long-term commitment to keep the issue (whatever that may be) current and to keep trying to educate and engage the public, policymakers, or others in the conversation.

Sometimes there may be efforts by a corporate foundation to raise the public awareness of a particular issue, and perhaps those are more meaningful and impactful efforts for the field and the grantee. But I just find that in the arena of corporate foundations there is a lot of misguided energy and wasted resources on “visibility” that still misses the mark. At least if a company has established a foundation or giving program, these are resources that are going to the nonprofit sector and are providing some help. But sometimes this kind of visibility just makes you want to look away.

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