How corporate foundations and CSR need to evolve to be more effective partners with nonprofits


[Image description: An orange cat, resting their head on the keyboard of an open laptop, looking bored or sleepy. On the laptop screen, there’s a person wearing a lab coat gesturing at a chalkboard or something. Not sure what this has to do with CSR. But the cat’s cute, so that’s something, right?]

Hi everyone, I am back from vacation in Vietnam (and now am on jury duty). It was not exactly a vacation. Keeping vigilance on two fussy small children was exhausting. Also, it is an ancient Vietnamese custom for the relatives you visit to be blunt and loudly assess your appearance whenever they see you. “You got really old since you last visited,” said one, “Sheesh, what happened? Have people told you how tired and haggard you look? Seriously, your face is like a bag of lychee shells that’s been left to rot in the sun.” I know, Dad! You don’t need to tell me! (This is why I only go back every three years.)

Anyway, I am back in the US, and only slightly jetlagged and delirious, so it’s the perfect time to talk about corporate foundations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). I realize that I don’t talk much about this. It may be because larger foundations tend to give bigger grants and so they get most of the spotlight and also more of the criticisms.

But over the last two years, I have met many incredible people working to advance philanthropy within corporations, trying hard to be effective partners with nonprofits, and trying to understand their place in the work to advance social justice. As problems continue to plague our communities, corporations and corporate foundations have critical roles to play in advancing a just and inclusive community. But to do that effectively, CSR as a whole must undergo a necessary existential crisis and make some changes.

I’ll be blunt. The way CSR has historically partnered with nonprofits has been incredibly ineffective. And downright annoying. For the love of swag, please stop it with these one-day-of-service events where you send hundreds of your employees to us nonprofits to paint a mural or make sandwiches for people experiencing homelessness, or something. Few of us want 400 people, all wearing the same t-shirts, to descend on us in one day. It is madness! We only do it to make you happy, but it costs us a lot of time and effort and money to plan these events. We roll our eyes at your taking pictures for your PR. You think that this is a “win-win” situation or whatever, when the reality is that people are hungry year-round, not just on the one day that is convenient for your company. I’m sure there are one-day service events that make sense, but most are terrible.

We are also tired of the popularity contests some of you run, where you force nonprofits to farm for votes and likes, with the “winner” getting a grant or some service from your company or foundation. As I wrote about here, these popularity contests are insulting and harmful to our work, forcing nonprofits to waste endless time and energy harassing people for likes and votes instead of doing things that would be more effective for our missions. Please never host them ever again.

And while we’re at it, many of us are exhausted by your demands that we put on certain events or run them a certain way—“Can we get more blue lighting on stage? It’s our brand color. Also, can we also get the children in your program to form a choir and sing our jingle?” I’ve heard of corporate funders asking for entirely new programs or services for a fraction of the funding it would require—“Can you start a program to teach toddlers to code if we give you five laptops and ten dollars?”

I know many CSR staff who are also tired of the way CSR is being done. I had lunch with one who is trying to get her corporation to read and discuss Decolonizing Wealth and Winners Take All, with not much luck. Another I met with told me he’s leaving CSR because he was tired of trying to convince his company to think of the greater good, including paying more corporate taxes to support public education, instead of just doling out tiny amounts of money to education nonprofits and feeling good about it.

In light of all the horrible things happening in our world, we need corporations and corporate foundations to step up. CSR can be a key player in creating a better society. But to do that well, there are the philosophies you must shift and the things you must do differently. Besides the above, here are other things to consider:

Lead meaningful conversations and engagement with your employees: A lot of CSR is about engaging employees and connecting them to the community. Which is why these one-day service events, and to a lesser degree ongoing volunteerism, are so attractive. But these engagements are often superficial, something we nonprofits often just put up with so we can get your financial support. For authentic, effective engagement, CSR teams must make it your responsibility to educate the employees at your corporation important issues like racism, redlining, poverty, wealth gaps, taxes, food deserts, colonization, implicit bias, etc. Host uncomfortable discussions. Buy copies for everyone and push people to read Decolonizing Wealth and Winners Take All and So You Want to Talk About Race. Educating the people at your corporation so they can engage thoughtfully with their communities and partner effectively with nonprofits is one of the most important things CSR teams can do to advance equity.  

Get your corporation to examine the harm it may be causing: A central message of Winners Take All is that corporations have been using nonprofits to get public accolades and distract from the damage they are causing. It doesn’t matter how much your corporation is giving to end homelessness if it is causing homelessness in the first place. Or giving to environmental causes while screwing the environment. Or giving to health organizations while producing products that cause health problems. We cannot create an equitable world if CSR departments continue to “charity wash” the harm caused by their corporations. Of course, this is not to say that all corporations are guilty of this; but every corporation needs to do some soul searching, and every CSR department should make it a significant part of its work to lead these uncomfortable but critical conversations.

Disentangle your philanthropic work from marketing/sales: CSR has primarily acted as a branch of marketing. Which is why we nonprofits agree to help promote your brands in exchange for sponsorships and grants. But this sort of transactional relationship impedes our ability to work together to effect the change that we both want to make. If you only see through the lens of how to increase brand awareness, you will not be an effective partner in addressing injustice. Many of the problems we nonprofits are trying to address, many of our missions, may not help you promote your brand at all, or may even negatively affect your brands. These are often the issues for which it is most difficult for us to raise funds and support for. Addressing the killing of Black people by the police. Creating responsible gun laws to decrease mass shootings. Stopping the murder and disappearance of Native women. Supporting these issues may not help your marketing efforts, but if CSR is serious about creating a better world, these and other issues must be on your radar.

Take bold, courageous stands and accept the risks associated with it: With the rise of racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and associated crimes against humanity like the children and families caged and dying at the border, or the murder of trans people, corporations can make a significant impact by taking public stances on important issues. Nike is an example, with its partnership with Colin Kaepernick, which pissed off a whole lot of racists. Gillette, meanwhile, has been embracing its transgender customers with ads like this one (which pissed off transphobes). These brands are not perfect by any means, but in the fight for a just world, every voice matters, and corporations, with much stronger reach than most of us nonprofits have, can greatly help to advance equity by being willing to take public positions on important issues. CSR teams, help your corporations to see these issues and to act boldly on them.

Work in true partnerships with nonprofits: To solve many of society’s problems, nonprofits and for-profits need to work together more closely. To do that, we need to be equal partners. But this means you need to trust that we know way more than you do about the issues we’re trying to tackle. Stop restricting what we can and can’t spend on with the funds you give us. Stop expecting us to perform miracles with small grants. Stop having burdensome grant applications. Stop making us bend over backwards and waste time when there are so many pressing issues to deal with. Stop bizsplaining. Give multi-year funding when possible so we have stability to do the work. Work with us to strategize instead of coming up with your priorities and forcing us to align with them.

I know that’s a lot to take in. Many CSR departments only have a few team members, sometimes one or two. And they are often pressed for time. I also know that many CSR professionals are frustrated because they want to effect change at their organization but are treated like an afterthought, something to be put up with, a token effort at appeasing the community and the socially-conscious team members.

But I do believe corporations can play a major role in building a just and inclusive world. It requires that CSR teams understand and embrace their purpose, demand a stronger role and more autonomy and resources, disentangle where possible from branding and marketing, stop archaic practices like popularity-based grants and most one-day-of-service events, take risks and push your corporation to take public stances on critical issues, and cutting out the BS to work more effectively with us nonprofits.

Or, as one of my aunts who is a successful business owner said when I brought up the topic of corporate social responsibility: “I never understood your work and have no idea what you’re rambling about. But your dad is right about your face.”

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