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A Guide to Getting Started in Corporate Philanthropy

Business guru Charles Handy, writing in Harvard Business Review, summarized the value of philanthropic businesses by saying, "A good business is a community with a purpose." Here are six steps to setting up a corporate philanthropy program:

Step One: Values audit. Start from your values base. Most corporations begin with an audit or evaluation of their values, bringing together leadership and representation from the staff to identify and articulate the company's ethos and how it relates to the company's mission and values.

What does your company care about: kids, shelter, domestic violence? For example, Polaroid created a foundation, managed by a committee of employees, to increase self-sufficiency among the disadvantaged by building their business skills with computers, literacy and business comportment.

Step Two: Engage directly. Increasingly, employees look for ways to have an intense, short-term project. For example, Volunteers of America has found over the past five years that corporations often prefer an all-day or weekend-long group project, such as painting a women's shelter to the longer-term individual commitments such as being a big sister.

High tech company geoView relies on its employees to bring the company into projects about which they are excited, "focusing on blood, sweat and tears," says Barbara Gail Warden, vice president of marketing. "We don't get involved in giving cold, hard cash, because we'd rather give services that really help people out"

Step Three: Explore partnerships. Partner with a social cause already established and visible in the community, such as a human services organization or a science or arts museum. Look for an organization that aligns with your interests, and consider how broad its reach and its reputation. For example, if your employees value community service, look for an organization that will find a role for them in the community rather than just giving donations.

Step Four: Get beyond fund-raising events. Many corporations participate in events that benefit a specific charity, such as a walk for breast cancer. While that's unequivocally a good cause, your company might get more value from something locally based that engages employees. Employees are the best ambassadors a company has, and their heightened participation in the community reflects well on your company.

Edgewater Technology lent six employees to Angel Flight - a nonprofit organization providing air transportation to medical patients unable to pay for commercial flights - for a four-month job to get its scheduling system integrated and online to improve services.

Step Five: Institute policies and practices. The most effective corporate philanthropy programs are well conceived and formalized, with written guidelines to keep them focused; objectives to quantify the desired results; and specific policies and practices to keep them objective and transparent. Of these, the most effective philanthropy programs tie this package together with corporate business goals and decision-making.

Kellogg's has a values statement that includes becoming "an asset in each community, region and country in which we operate." Starbucks Coffee has formalized a statement of its beliefs in human rights, diversity and the environment, and its mission and principles of social responsibility.

Step Six: Track and review outcomes. Measure the corporate impact and community impact of your corporate philanthropy program.

Corporate impact measures may include the number of employees involved in community service; changes in employee recruitment or retention results; or positive feedback from employees and shareholders.

Community impact measures might include how a partner program has grown because of your actions; numbers of people helped by direct giving or giving through a nonprofit; or cleaner parks and watersheds.

Author: Martin Cohn and Ann Getman

Martin Cohn is president of The Cohn Group Inc., a public relations company in Needham, Massachusetts that for the past eight years has concentrated on the promotion of philanthropy for the past eight years. He can be reached at D. Getman is principal of Getman Strategic Communications in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She works with both nonprofit organizations and corporations and can be reached at

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