A focus on fundraising lets businesses off the hook

Last year I was invited by MP David Blunkett’s office to provide testimony in the Charities Aid Foundation’s Growing Giving inquiry, which is exploring the future of giving, charity, and philanthropy in the workplace. Intrigued and excited by the opportunity, I accepted and began preparing.

The inquiry touched on many different dimensions of the issue of giving, including giving mechanisms, how people give at work and the future of philanthropy in the work environment. Experts from a variety of backgrounds around the UK also weighed in on the matter, presenting on topics such as the business case for giving, how business leaders could do more to get employees engaged with charity, and how future businesses could be established with giving in mind.

Listening to the presentations, it was clear that tides are shifting and many people now see business playing a major role in creating a culture of charitable giving. This, coupled with increasing demand for businesses to accept broader social responsibilities given how closely their economic activities contribute to growing social and environmental challenges, heightens the attention paid to business as a catalyst for good.

Setting up and supporting payroll giving schemes, encouraging more volunteering and modelling philanthropic behaviour are just some of the ways that businesses are being encouraged to make a more positive contribution to society. However, focusing solely on promoting charitable giving and volunteering at work misses the forest for the trees.

By placing too great an emphasis on charitable giving by employees we are in danger of letting companies off the hook in terms of their broader responsibilities – for example, paying employees a fair wage, sourcing materials responsibly, and accounting for the environmental and societal impact of their economic activities.

Making it easier and more enjoyable for staff to give to charity in the workplace – through payroll giving, group fund-raising, or company-sponsored volunteering – can promote staff engagement and, obviously, channel more funds to charities. It has many benefits and is to be applauded. However, the most significant way businesses can reconcile the social and environmental problems they contribute to is through a more enlightened approach to their strategies – building business cases for tackling social and environmental challenges and creating more “inclusive growth” or “shared value” (choose whichever buzzword you subscribe to) for the sake of a broader range of stakeholders than merely their shareholders.

As social entrepreneurship becomes a more mainstream business activity and interest in impact investment increases, the assumption that business, the public sector, and charity operate in separate spheres is already being challenged. The breaking down of institutional mandates and boundaries meets a significant cultural shift amongst a new wave of young philanthropists. These new stewards, who will be inheriting over $40 trillion of assets over the next 5 years, are rejecting the idea of donating through obligation and tradition and are driven instead by strategy and impact maximization.

Some businesses have already moved into this direction, accepting the shifting tides of responsibility and finding unique business opportunities to do well and do good simultaneously. These include the likes of Novartis and their approach towards increasing access to health in emerging markets, Royal DSM, M&S’s Plan A, Nike and their ‘Roadmap Towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Waste’, and of course Unilever.

Of course, one must appreciate that it will take time for policy and more traditional organisations to catch up. Having opened the discussion in this parliamentary inquiry, I do hope that policymakers and businesses will begin to make progress with the real questions on the table, namely the changing role of business in society. We need corporations to realise not only their responsibility to contribute to creating a better world, but also their unique ability to do so.

Soushiant Zanganehpour is a consultant at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University