From Checkbook Charity to Strategic Donations: Moving from Reactive to Proactive Corporate Giving

*This article was just published in the Corporate Social Responsibility and Green PR Guidebook


The expression “checkbook charity” is unfairly derisive because it implies throwing money at a cause and moving on, without an attempt at building any relationship or loyalty. Contributing even in small ways to non-profits, so their work for a better world can continue, is important! Yet simple cash donations are just the beginning, a tactic under the umbrella of a larger corporate giving strategy.

When company a company’s donation policy is either reactive (writing checks to anyone who asks) or hyper-democratic (giving donations to every favorite cause submitted by any employee), it isn’t positioned to garner much more than a big thank you. That’s unfortunate because with a Strategic Giving Program in place, donations of money, time and in-kind services can result in not only a greater social impact, but also have a more positive resonance among employees, customers and ultimately even benefit the bottom line.

Consider this headline: Acme Company Donates $25,000 to Springfield Library – Allows for construction of new wing; technology upgrades.

While the dollar amount and the non-profit will vary, the typical outcome of this $25,000 spend is that Acme will be noted for making a large cash donation to enable the library to move ahead with its capital campaign. That is laudable for supporting an important community institution, and certain to help many people for years to come.

Alternatively, imagine this headline: Acme Company Sets Bar to Improve Statewide Literacy by Ten Percent This Year – Donates $25,000 to Springfield Library to Kick Off Campaign.

Here, the impact of Acme’s gift has greater resonance. Beyond donating to a charity, the company is fueling change by taking up a cause that more people can embrace. The issue comes first, the non-profit partner selection is born out of that, and may include one or many different organizations.

Further, by supporting an issue instead of a single nonprofit, the company opens the door to more opportunities for employees to volunteer time, and to donate space, equipment or pro-bono services. By embracing a tangible and measurable issue, the company also can invite its customers and other key stakeholders to join them in a movement toward reaching their literacy goal. This is a powerful loyalty driver that can be manifested through a variety of programs, from building a more engaged Facebook community to serving as a cause marketing campaign, providing a call-to-action for socially minded customers. The advocacy portion of the engagement can expand as far as pursuing regulatory or legislative action, depending on the appetite of the company.

A successful strategic giving program has a life that extends beyond a single gift presentation. Evaluate it against these criteria:

–      Social Impact

–      Employee Impact

–      Customer Impact

–      Reputational Impact

–      Shareholder Impact

–      Bottom Line Impact


Social Impact

Creating “greater social impact” has been a buzz phrase in philanthropy for several years now.  As is the case with most business initiatives, it is best measured by articulating the goal before the program begins. Like in the Acme Literacy case, the program set a measurable goal of improving literacy by a certain percentage in a specific timeframe. The social impact from that can be measured in school enrollments, graduation rates and newly created employment opportunities.

Social impact not only includes the numbers of people directly affected by an initiative, but secondary benefits too, like when a parent that’s learned to read can now read to her child.

Mobilizing the broader community to join in a movement to meet the goal, like signing petitions or pressing to pass public policy changes, is measurable social impact too.

Employee Impact

Charitable giving ought to benefit the workforce as much as the nonprofit. A successful strategic corporate giving program is where PR and HR collaborate, and has the blessing of the corner office.

Even without asking employees to participate in a giving initiative, they will still benefit from the good will associated with the program, and hopefully, have pride in the care demonstrated by the company. That can’t happen without communication – share the initiative and its impacts through emails, newsletters, posters and online workplace communities.

Invite employees to volunteer – many feel that they don’t have the time to donate time to important causes, with their every day commitments between office and home. Many will welcome the chance to participate, and will be the best ambassadors to recruit their colleagues to join in and grow the program. Make it easy to participate- earmark volunteer time or create a single day event where everyone has the option to jump in. And the more that company leadership stands side by side with the workforce, the greater the likelihood to increase participation.

A company that gives back and encourages volunteerism is increasingly important to retaining and recruiting passionate talent to the company. Indeed, new research underscores the importance that job seeking millennials put on it. Sixty-one percent of 18- to 26-year-olds polled in a 2011 Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT survey said they would prefer to work for a company that offers volunteer opportunities.

Customer Impact

The Cause Marketing Forum (CMF) is chock full of statistics that prove doing good is good business too. Research on CMF shows most consumers want to know companies are doing something to make the world a better place, yet companies are failing to explain exactly what that is.

Customer impact begins with education, clearly explaining the cause embraced by the company, why it’s important and how they can help. This can show up in all the usual channels, and unusual ones too: on product packaging, at point of purchase, on the website, through social media, traditional media, in ads, via partners, direct mail, word of mouth, public service announcements- they sky’s the limit if you’ve got the budget.

But it’s not enough to monologue. Create a call to action that engages the consumer- ask them to sign a pledge to read to their children, have them purchase one of your products and in return you will make a donation, encourage their volunteerism. And make it hard to say no. Create events and mechanisms where they can make a tangible difference and feel that they are part of a larger movement. That will drive their word of mouth about your company and brand.

Reputational Impact

PR professionals know exactly what this means. In addition to promoting the cause, take some credit for the initiative in the first place. Have everyone from company leadership through the front lines speak publicly about what it means to the organization. Apply for awards and other public recognition.

An added advantage is insurance in the face of crisis. Companies perceived as good citizens will weather a crisis from a position of strength and trust.

Bottom Line

There nothing wrong with an organization expecting an ROI from its giving. In fact- they should demand it! Every other budget line item is scrutinized for return on spent, and charitable giving should be no different. Consumers will be inclined to choose your brand over a competitor’s because of your good work. An engaged work force contributes to a stronger bottom line.

Evolving from disjointed and reactive charitable donations to steady, strategic, issues-based giving will provide a far greater impact to the organization and the causes it supports.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.