Corporate Social Responsibility, the Right Way

PR stunt or a real drive to give back to the community? Here’s how to make sure your corporate giving strategy has longevity

According to statistics gathered by Giving USA, the sum of corporate giving in the United States reached a whopping $17.7 billion in 2014. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs aren’t going anywhere, as the benefits of corporate philanthropy from both a social impact and employee engagement standpoint outweigh the overall monetary investment.

On the flip side, there’s a controversial component to corporate giving. Coined “strategic philanthropy” or “cause-related marketing,” CSR has also become a form of public relations – a means to boost a company’s brand image through ongoing promotion of its sponsorships and not-for-profit relationships.

So what makes an authentic corporate giving program? One that has longevity and provides the company with the organic returns on investment (a boost in employee morale, social capital and competitive context), which most organizations seek when delving into CSR.


Mark Sutton, chief revenue officer at FrontStream, a Boston-based online platform that manages everything from employee giving through payroll deductions, corporate volunteer hours and other tools facilitating sponsorships, says that it all starts with understanding your company’s core values: “There are some organizations that will say, ‘We’ll enable our employees to give to anybody they want, provided they’re a registered charity,’ ” he explains. “And others will say, ‘We are passionate about environmental issues or education or human rights.’ At the corporate level, you’d want to understand where you fall on that spectrum.”

In February of 2015, Tangerine (formerly ING Direct) centralized their corporate philanthropy program and named it Bright Way Forward. “We want to empower Canadians to make smarter decisions with their money,” says Cayley Koshel, who works in corporate communications at the bank. “We want to provide Canadians with the tools and the knowledge so that they can make their own decisions with their money and live a healthy financial life.” And that underlying corporate ethos has trickled into every non-for-profit the company supports.

“We found a central theme of empowerment,” Koshel says. “Whether it’s healthy food and education through FoodShare [one of the company’s Toronto partners whose mandate is to the increase the consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits across the community] or eliminating barriers to employment and helping people find jobs – it’s all about giving Canadians the things that they need to live a better life.”


Tangerine has at least two full-time staff dedicated to Bright Way Forward, which Sutton deems a key element to most successful CSR programs, along with firm support from the top. “If this is something that’s supported at the executive and even board level, then that’s an essential component of making sure the program is ongoing,” he says.

And corporate giving doesn’t have to exclude small-to-mid-sized companies: “If the organization has the interest and the conviction to make this part of their identity, I think there are loads of ways they can start, even on a modest scale,” Sutton says.

Providing employees with a set number of volunteer days on company time can be effective in recognizing and valuing individual employees for more than just the function that they’re tasked with as part of the organization. By helping to support an individual’s passions, whether it’s cooking food for the homeless, youth sports or assisting new immigrants with their CV, this can be a way to retain and attract employees, as it slowly becomes part of the organization’s core values.


Still, there’s criteria not-for-profits and charities have for corporate partners. Heidi Pyper, who handles corporate relationships at FoodShare, says that the ideal corporate partners are the ones who want to engage on many levels. “We look at companies that are somewhat directly aligned to our values,” she explains. “One of our major donors is Hain Celestial; they have a whole product line of healthy food. There’s a very direct synergy between what they’re doing and what we’re doing – it’s complimentary.”

Ease and flow, depth as well as greater commitment over time is something that FoodShare also looks for. “Relationships like these are like any other relationship; you don’t usually begin at the end…with a giant cheque,” Pyper jokes. “Everybody wants to be a part of building something, and it’s easier when everybody is aligned with the goal. If we have a shared goal, then the relationship can grow.”

As for the line being drawn between “strategic philanthropy” and a genuine urge to give back?

“I would say that when you look at companies and there’s no question that CSR is built into the fabric of who they are, it’s not a PR stunt,” Sutton says. “Like Salesforce’s 1/1/1 program; 1% sales, 1% of employee time, 1% of product goes to non-profits; I think that comes from commitment from the top, and when you see it embraced at that level, as part of a fundamental company ethos and who the company is, the program is set up to succeed.”

Corporate Social Responsibility, the Right Way
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