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Corporate philanthropy becomes a renewed focus for leadership companies

Climate change, racial equity and pandemic relief dominate the charitable giving conversations inside top companies.

Group of volunteers

There is a renewed focus on what corporate money can and should be doing in the philanthropy space.  Via Shutterstock.

In 2020, philanthropic donations by major donors saw an almost 7 percent increase on a year-to-date basis. As companies direct more of their money to external charitable causes, internally decision-makers are assessing how the companies' philanthropic efforts tie into their values, corporate responsibilities and sustainability strategies.

For many, this includes weaving sustainability into their already established practices. Jeannette Astorga, head of sustainability at Zoetis, explained during the recent GreenBiz 21 event that the company’s philanthropy needs to be strategic and in line with the company's sustainability strategy.

During the session, Cecily Joseph, adviser for the Presidio Graduate School Initiative for Equity and Social Justice, highlighted the three major components of sustainability in business today — racial equity, climate change, and health and wellness. Joseph noted that racial equity is especially at the forefront of philanthropic strategy given a rise in calls for racial justice in 2020 in the corporate sector.

"For companies, [racial equity] encompasses talent and workforce development that are internal to the company," Joseph said. "[But also] systemic and institutional racism, policies, education."

A multifaceted approach for achieving racial equity is at the center of philanthropic efforts. For example, JPMorgan Chase committed $50 billion towards the advancement of racial justice — including $2 billion specifically for philanthropic efforts — while also working inside the company to diversify its employees. Joseph also cited Apple’s and Intel’s recent initiatives dedicated to racial equity, pointing out that those initiatives are fueled by philanthropy dollars.

While racial justice has become a top corporate priority for many companies this past year, the increased prevalence of the climate crisis has led to further emphasis on using philanthropic dollars on climate change. The violent North American wildfire season, the midwestern and southern winter storms last week and 2020 ending as the hottest year on record, tying with 2016, have made it clear we are entering a new phase of climate catastrophe.

And while philanthropic donations towards climate change, in particular, have doubled in the last five years, they still only account for less than 2 percent of total philanthropic donations.

But 2020 also presented an opportunity for corporate leadership to look closer to home than a typical philanthropic venture. As the coronavirus pandemic pushed people into isolation, drastically increased burnout and created intense stress, companies worked to support the well-being and the emotional sustainability of their employees. 

Philanthropic donations towards climate change have doubled in the last 5 years, yet still only account for less than 2% of total philanthropic donations.

In addition to her normal philanthropic work, Kimberly Paxton-Hanger, co-owner of Kwik Lok, worked to give her employees a sustainable lifestyle that supported their communities and families, and helped them be good stewards of their home environment.

According to her, this holistic approach made it so that "[the company’s] values are reflected in everything you choose to do."

According to Kwik Lok’s 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility report, the company covered 100 percent of health insurance costs in the U.S. during COVID-19 and nearly one-third of U.S. employees participate in "a company well-being program." 

Astorga explained how during the pandemic, Zoetis looked for ways it could help people struggling outside the company and support healthcare workers. The animal health company donated its cold storage equipment to food banks and personal protective equipment to local hospitals.

But to enact true and lasting change, both Paxton-Hanger and Astogra highlighted the need for long-term partnerships.

"We want to have partnerships where we are actually interacting with them in a way that is part of our core business operations," Astogra said. In doing so, sustainability can become a part of the business, rather than solely a one-off philanthropic goal.

As Joseph looks to the future, she finds a powerful truth and wisdom in BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink’s 2021 letter to CEOs. In his letter, Fink underscores the importance that no issue is independent of social consequences. Philanthropic work is one pathway of many, that must work in conjunction with others, to achieve equity and justice.

"[We are seeing] interconnectedness between philanthropy and sustainability in a way we hadn’t seen before," Joseph said.

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