Corporate Philanthropy: The Challenges and Opportunities

Friday, June 19, 2009

By Chris Park
Chair of the Board of Directors, Philanthropy New York

President, New York Life Foundation

I need to open with a disclaimer: the thoughts I am sharing below are my own and are not connected in any way to my employer, New York Life.

I often get the feeling that philanthropic professionals who work in private, family, or community foundations have a cynicism about the work done by those of us in the corporate sector. On behalf of my current colleagues in corporate giving, and all the up-and-comers who might want to work in this arena one day, I want to share what makes charitable giving through the corporate framework so challenging and rewarding, and every bit as impactful as grantmaking done by other types of foundations.

Challenge: We have multiple stakeholders to consider when making decisions about resource allocations. Customers, shareholders, governmental entities, employees, company leadership, media, and vendors all have an interest in how the company sets giving priorities and awards grant money. These stakeholders often want a say in how grantmaking is done and want to know what has been accomplished. They may put pressure on the company to downsize giving if financial times are tough.

Opportunity: We have “constituents” who can act as focus groups, give us constant feedback, and bring us ideas about what to fund. They hold us accountable in ways that non-corporate funders don’t need to consider. Also, if we are able to get our work built into the fabric of every part of the organization, we are less likely to take a bigger hit than other parts of the company when there is an economic downturn.

Challenge: The corporate setting requires quick decision-making. More often than not, corporate giving staffs are also responsible for a larger set of activities than grantmaking, including managing employee engagement programs and the larger “corporate responsibility” agenda.

Opportunities: While corporate grantmakers usually can’t spend several days reviewing each grant proposal, it’s wrong to assume that grantees get short shrift in the corporate setting. The chance to meet with our larger nonprofit partners, do site visits, and review results regularly is built into most of our jobs. Can we do as much of that as we would like? Perhaps not, but it is every bit as important to us to make good, solid investments in the right partners as it is for other kinds of funders. Corporate responsibility also demands involvement and feedback from every section of our companies. As a result of these partnerships, an exciting and rewarding level of engagement can be felt throughout the organization, impacting our communities in ways beyond our grantmaking.

Challenge: Managing large employee-focused programs takes time and energy which might be better used working with grantees.

Opportunity: One of the major advantages of working in the corporate sector is that we have multiple resources available—for our partners and the broader community—that don’t exist in other philanthropic settings. We can muster our employees as volunteers, send employees with specific skills to our nonprofit partners to provide capacity building help, offer product donations, arrange vendor discounts, or provide space for meetings, just to name a few. These resources add tremendous value and bolster our relationships with our key partners.

Challenge: Being funded by a company brings with it expectations that the funding area will be “strategic,” and that the philanthropic involvement, if it is “in plain sight,” will increase the company’s visibility. This need to let key stakeholders know about philanthropic activity can drive decision-making.

Opportunity: Strategic giving is nothing new for corporate foundations/giving programs. In every company I have worked for, we have tried to make a difference in funding areas that both meet a compelling community need and resonate with our key stakeholders. We recognize that you can’t attempt to be all things to all people and still have an impact—our many constituencies need to be reminded of that regularly.

Getting our programs built into the DNA of the company is our number one priority because this builds loyalty for the programs. Getting information to internal and external audiences is absolutely necessary and adds another level of workload that other funders don’t necessarily have. As I speak with my colleagues about the need to obtain visibility for our commitments, I am encouraged by how many of them have the cart and the horse in the right order. The horse is the good work we do supporting our many terrific nonprofit partners and the cart is the multiple venues we use to inform the public about what we do. As long as decisions are made based on good grantmaking, and not the amount of publicity that can be expected, I personally think promoting our work is good for our partners and good for the company.

I feel privileged to have worked in this field for two decades and hope to be doing so for many more years. I sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to spend all day, every day, just doing grantmaking—and while this sounds like heaven, I soon realize that I would miss the pace and the stimulation of the everyday business dynamic; the opportunity to work with people who have jobs very different than mine; and the chance to think about how to use all the resources that corporate entities have available to them to impact our communities in a positive way.

Chris Park is President of the New York Life Foundation, the charitable foundation created by New York Life Insurance Company. In addition to her Foundation duties, Ms. Park is Vice President of New York Life’s Corporate Responsibility unit. Through its Nurturing the Children initiative, the New York Life Foundation devotes the majority of its funding each year to programs that help children in the areas of mentoring, educational enhancement, childhood bereavement, and safe places to learn and grow. Since its founding in 1979, the Foundation has made more than $120 million in contributions to New York and U.S.-based nonprofit organizations. New York Life Corporate Responsibility initiatives include the award-winning Volunteers for LIFE program, which helps New York Life employees nationwide volunteer within their communities.

Prior to joining New York Life, Ms. Park most recently served as President of the Alcatel-Lucent Foundation. In addition, she served as First Vice President and Manager of Corporate Giving for Washington Mutual Bank, and for ten years held numerous philanthropic leadership positions within the Dayton Hudson Corporation (now the Target Corporation) in Minneapolis, MN. Prior to joining Dayton Hudson, Ms. Park was an assistant to the mayor of St. Paul, MN, and worked as a school teacher and community organizer. She recently completed two terms on the Board of Directors of the national Council on Foundations as well as several years as Chair of their Corporate Advisory Committee. She serves as the Board Chair of Philanthropy New York and is a past Chair of the Conference Board’s Contributions Council, on which she continues to serve. Ms. Park earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota.

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