Pass the Fish -- and Let's Talk

Large-Scale Philanthropy and Big Brands Need Deeper Collaboration

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Eric Henderson
Eric Henderson

Traditionally, corporate charitable efforts have been stereotyped as ribbon-cutting photo ops. While that has its benefits, what's really needed is deeper, long-term partnerships between brands and philanthropic efforts, says Eric Henderson of Living Cities.

I appreciate the sentiment in this proverb, though the tread's nearly worn off:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Corporate community involvement approaches have been most visibly identified with the "give a fish" model. The teaching part has traditionally been perceived as the domain of philanthropic organizations. Regardless of perception, it's now time for both sectors to join minds and forces to work at a higher, more collaborative level.

Traditionally, corporate charitable efforts have been stereotyped as the cutting of ribbons and photo ops with oversize copies of checks. The vulnerability here lies in the strength of that stereotype. It still lives. And consumers are smart enough to accept the real check that lies behind the facsimile but still suspect a company as an interloper.

Let's stop there for a second. I don't think we should stop all of the ribbon cuttings. Imagine that they're standing in front of your house one day after a terrible disaster. We can go beyond cynicism and agree that there's true value in the charity of meeting immediate needs, regardless of motivation.

In short, it's hard to learn to fish on an empty stomach.

However, from there, let's extend our thinking to consider a different way to be involved, i.e., through a philanthropic lens. For our purpose here, philanthropy is "doing good" but at the level of social change in large and complex systems -- turning a bigger wheel to stop problems before they start, which is much easier said than done.

But what would happen if a brand were consciously identified with creating that level of change? Sales. On the strength of the kind of residual awareness and engagement that do not rely on a given campaign.

Sherman Wright, founding partner of independent agency Commonground, adds another dimension, one that fits the tough times we're living in at the moment: "As budgets become more streamlined, it is only natural that organizations look to bridge their philanthropic investments with their marketing efforts for a more cohesive approach in maximizing the so-called 'working' and 'nonworking' dollars. This 'non-siloed' approach also deepens integration across all consumer touch points by aligning how consumers look at a company."

The upshot? Let's make it personal. If I felt and understood that a brand were truly the force behind significant community development where I live, then I'd buy the toothbrush, the shoes and the fizzy drink -- all in one bundle. We're now good neighbors.

I'm not concerned as much with innovation here; building brand equity and goodwill in this context is not a new thing. Avon (via the Avon Foundation) is an object lesson in the power of long-term commitment, having raised more than $660 million for women's causes while deploying a tightly knit brand-management program encompassing those efforts.

Today, however, we have a critical window to revamp en masse our approach to doing good for the brand while doing good for people. At the latest conference of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, 55 CEOs from many of the world's largest companies recognized the need to "elevate and prioritize the social contract" and to "connect their strengths to the acute needs of the communities in which they do business."

Eric Henderson is director of communications for Living Cities, a collaboration among 21 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions, working together to re-engineer America's cities to improve quality of place and quality of life for low-income people in urban areas.

We can take a deeper, more intentional approach at the level of big brands and large-scale philanthropy. We can think and work in terms of fundamental social change while playing squarely on the strengths of both sectors.

I have witnessed campaigns in which the team pounds sand to come up with an intricate strategy -- and then unwittingly agrees to leave the community involvement piece out of that strategy session, not when it comes to defining the consumer target but rather when it comes to allocating dollars. "Oh, yes, let's donate $X to this charity in the neighborhood. It fits the interest of consumer we're trying to reach. And we'll do some good to boot." Despite good intentions, this kind of thinking forsakes a real opportunity to do better by the community and the brand.

What, for example, if we were to take a part of the campaign allocation and use it to raise more money through a more intentional collaboration with the right philanthropic or municipal leaders? By collaborate, I mean executing a strategy that is interwoven with brand objectives and that deliberately looks to a longer term. Further, such collaboration engages the noncorporate actors in the planning process directly on their strengths: their own "good name" brands, their missions, their connection to and knowledge of the people they serve, their facility with the complex issues in a given community.

In this scenario, a facsimile check for a few thousand at a ribbon-cutting can take on a second life as leverage to raise many times that amount and be dedicated to longer-term problem solving. The leading foundations and nonprofits are skilled at this model of leverage. Living Cities, a collaboration of 21 of the world's largest foundations and financial institutions, has used investments of $500 million to create more than $16 billion in tangible community systems and assets. That is leverage. The current environment should wake us up quickly to the fact that the types of problems we face can't really be met with less than the force of intelligent collaboration of organizations across multiple sectors.

But what's in it for the brand?

The equation can only begin with doing what's right for the brand -- i.e., putting your oxygen mask on before trying to help others. Doing right for the brand in this case means recognizing the business value of engaging consumers on genuine terms that are also recognized as such.

Be (and be seen as) committed, long-term players in the cities and neighborhoods where you do business.

Agencies have traveled this ground for a long time now, being frequently called on to add a community component to major campaigns. I am proposing in broad stroke that agencies make this part of the offering more explicit and much stronger through collaboration and dedicating the same thought work to this component, even treating philanthropic touches in some instances as another media channel measurable by familiar numbers: goodwill contribution, awareness, reach, frequency, purchase intent and whatever else works for you. You won't find a fit for every client or project, but it should at least be considered in the set.

If this sounds too pat, you're on the right trail. I would not underestimate the will and coordination required to execute on this level, and, further, this strategy doesn't apply to every brand. However, if you have a large urban footprint and have ever considered increasing sales based on increasing engagement with specific communities, then there's a good chance I'm talking to you. So please pass the fish, and let's figure out how we can change whole systems for the good of everyone.

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