CORPORATE GIFTS TO CHARITIES ARE PART OF DOING BUSINESS Companies should come up with a well-focused giving program


The headline of a recent issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a professional publication for non-profit organizations, boldly pronounced: "Corporate Gifts Harder To Obtain." So, what else is new? Corporate gifts have always been difficult for non-profits to nail down, especially for smaller or more controversial charities.

The facts are clear. While individual donors gave more than $100 billion to charities in 1990, corporations gave only $6 billion.

What intrigues me the most, though, is the flip side of the corporate charity equation, namely how corporations are responding to requests from non-profit organizations. With massive government cutbacks in aid to non-profit organizations, totaling more than $35 billion annually since 1980, corporate giving programs are deluged with requests from charities for everything from aspirin to zoological park construction, abortion rights to Zionism.

And "deluged" is not an embellishment for journalistic impact. One of my clients, with a relatively modest $1 million-a-year corporate giving program, receives nearly 1,000 legitimate requests a year. Of course, that doesn't include the hundreds of bizarre requests it gets every year from people with nothing better to do than waste postage and time asking for money to "investigate the beaches of Tahiti."

While I'm sympathetic to corporate programs under siege, admittedly I don't shed any tears. In my view, nearly every corporate program that complains of the work associated with corporate giving is standing in a mess of its own making. To a company, they are missing an enormous opportunity for doing good for the community, while they are doing well for their bottom line.

"Contributions Chaos" is what R. Sue Smith Dodea aptly calls this confusion. Ms. Dodea, program director for the Corporate Giving Initiative of the Council of Michigan Foundations, is simply describing the state of affairs that many of us find when we are called in to examine a corporate giving program that has finally acknowledged that there has got to be a better way.

Somehow the bucks seem to be flowing down an endless drain, there is no return on investment, the donations seem to generate as much bad will as good will -- and the list goes on. Is there a better way to do charitable giving, I'm often asked?

The answer is a definite yes. A better, more effective and infinitely more rewarding way.

The first step to any change, whether in corporate giving or selling widgets, is to conduct an internal audit of past giving. What are the past practices? Are there clear trends in giving, for example, to arts organizations? How does past giving compare with your community's current needs?

And here is the primary lesson to be learned. Corporate giving should be viewed just as any other business function. It is not a frill, nor an unnecessary cost of doing business. Corporate giving should have clear goals and objectives.

According to Ms. Dodea, the next step is to focus the program. No corporate giving program can be everything to everyone. It is important to examine what it is the company wishes to support. Are there community needs that have a direct impact on the future success of the business?

It is also important at this stage to coordinate the focusing process with the company's overall marketing objectives and human resources needs.

Are there marketing objectives that can be enhanced through the judicious use of charitable dollars? Companies should be aware of the fact that there are several constituencies to address in any corporate giving program, not just those requesting funds.

As an example, employees must be an integral part of corporate giving. Is one of your human resource goals to develop a corporate culture where worker productivity and dedication is high and decision-making viewed as a shared responsibility? Then consider an employee contributions-matching program and an employee volunteer program. Both can reap enormous benefits if designed well and with employee input.

With a well-focused program, corporate contributions programs should consider non-cash components, such as volunteerism and gifts of inventory or depreciated assets. Both are extremely effective and, in today's tight economy, often necessary to meet charitable giving goals. Best of all, non-cash contributions can be as effective with smaller companies as with larger ones.

Giving away pre-tax profits wisely is never easy for any corporation. But, to give it away unwisely is a waste of shareholders' or owners' money and a loss of opportunity for the community.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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