If you’re looking to generate goodwill for your business, corporate philanthropy is a tried and true approach. But before you schedule that photo op with the oversized check, let’s talk about why your “Giving Back” program might not be the best move for your brand.

Whoa … before you call me a greedy, money-hungry scumbag, let me clarify. I’m not saying businesses shouldn’t help out good causes. I just think there’s a better way to do it than with haphazard donations touted as “Giving Back.”

The Problem With “Giving Back”

So now that that’s cleared up … let’s start with the phrase “giving back.” What’s wrong with it? Well, as Denise Lee Yohn points out in her book What Great Brands Do, the term “giving back” implies that you’ve taken something from society and are now repaying a karmic debt. Makes sense. After all, this is exactly what some companies do. They’ll sponsor a youth baseball team to distract from the fact that their plant pollutes the air these kids breathe.

This is called causewashing—claiming to support a certain cause while engaging in business practices that run counter to that cause. It takes on different forms. You might have heard the term “greenwashing,” pretending to care about the environment while actually harming it, or “pinkwashing,” adding pink to your packaging during October in support of breast cancer, even though you sell a product that’s been linked to causing cancer

Thanks to social media, it’s gotten a little harder to get away with these moves since anyone can call out businesses on hypocrisy. Consumers have gotten savvier when it comes to sniffing out this kind of bullshit. So even if you have the best of intentions, why risk being seen in the same light as companies that use charitable donations as cover-ups?

Integrated Impact

But what can you do instead of “giving back”? You can work toward what we like to call Integrated Impact. That means building social responsibility into your business model. For example, cutting a check to an environmental cause doesn’t help very much if you’re not examining how much your business practices contribute to climate change. 

Instead of making one-time monetary donations, do the hard but more impactful work of evaluating every aspect of your processes and seeing where you can improve. Is your product overpackaged? Could you use more sustainable materials? Look at your processes not just once but periodically so that you can make continuous improvements. Over the long haul, this integration will lead to your business having more impact than it would if you had just cut a check to a charity and said, “Here, do your thing.”

One big advantage Integrated Impact has over random donations is that it contributes to your brand story. By consistently integrating social impact into your business practices, it builds trust. It shows that your business is part of the community, not just leeching off it. 

LEGO Gets It Right

One major brand that has successfully taken an Integrated Impact approach has been Lego. This is a company that could easily just write checks and go about their day, but they understand that improving the sustainability of their processes is more impactful for the planet and for business

Lego blocks

Throughout 2013 and 2014, they shrunk the size of their packaging by 14%, saving about seven thousand tons of cardboard. They’ve since introduced more sustainably sourced materials into their block pieces to move away from petroleum based plastics. They’ve committed to removing all single use plastic packaging from their materials by 2025. Lego is currently working toward a goal of using environmentally friendly materials in all of its core products and packaging by 2030. Considering how many people across the world enjoy building with Legos, these initiatives are making a big difference.  

Source: https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/corporate-social-responsibility-examples 

What About Donations?

Ok, so Integrated Impact sounds good, but does this mean your company shouldn’t make charitable donations? No. Donations are great … when they make sense for your brand. Let’s say you sell art supplies. Maybe a portion of your proceeds supports a local children’s art therapy nonprofit. Or you make quarterly donations—of either money or your products—to that nonprofit. This makes total sense. Even more, it causes this act of giving to become a partnership, one that creates a connection in consumers’ minds between your brand and that cause. 

Another advantage is that it makes it easier to say no to donation requests that don’t align with your brand. I know, I’m sounding like a greedy scumbag again. But listen, I’m not telling you to be stingy. If you have an existing program that’s making a substantial impact on a specific nonprofit organization, then when another organization asks for a donation, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “Sorry, but we budget a certain amount of our resources to this cause and we aren’t able to allocate resources to others.” It’s not stingy if your goal is to avoid spreading your donations thin so as to maximize impact on one cause. 

Keep in mind, you always have the option of making personal donations if you care about a cause that doesn’t fit with your company’s brand. Not every dollar you donate has to come from your business. But your brand and the causes it supports need to be in alignment. 

Should My Business Make Religious or Political Donations?

Another thing to think about is whether you want to support religious, political, or otherwise divisive causes. It’s not necessarily a bad move, but tread lightly. Again, if it aligns with your brand, go for it. And if it’s a no-brainer like funding cancer research, no problem. But think carefully about whether the causes your business supports might unnecessarily alienate a portion of your customer base

Jesus statue

Also, think about how your charity work might affect employees. I’ve worked at places where owners used their business to support charities based on their specific religion, not caring that their employees might have different beliefs. That can hurt employee morale. Ask yourself, “Am I supporting this religious organization because it makes sense for my brand, or am I doing this for myself and my own faith?” Once again, you always have the option of making donations as a private citizen if it means maintaining brand consistency. 

Whatever you decide to do—whether corporate donations or Integrated Impact—make sure it’s genuine. Don’t do this just for positive public relations. Definitely don’t engage in causewashing. The public will eventually find out. Not only is it just plain wrong, but it will hurt your brand as well as the cause you’re supporting. 

More than ever, consumers are looking for ways that they can simultaneously buy from brands they love while doing good for society. It’s a good business move if you do it right … and that means going beyond giving back. 


What are your thoughts on philanthropy and brand alignment? Let us know