Should Corporate Employee Giving Be Neutral?

Should corporate philanthropy teams vet nonprofit partners for employee giving according to their corporate values, or can they stay neutral? Expert Gwen Romack shares her answers.


Consider a company that publishes an annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) report that touts their stance against human rights abuses, their support of inclusion and equality, and their non-negotiable expectation for ethical conduct from all business partners. Then imagine it’s time for the corporate philanthropy team to start planning the company’s annual giving week, where corporate or major donor funds will be used to match employee contributions through a giving platform. Employees feel good about being able to easily find worthy causes and, even better, amplify their charitable donations through corporate matching. It’s a win-win, right? Now overlay the many issues we refer to as the Neutrality Paradox.

How does a corporation work with an employee giving platform provider to vet the recipients against their corporate values? Should they?

A treacherous and slippery slope of deciding who, what, and why to make discretionary limits becomes evident quickly. But can corporations turn a blind eye to the issues of discretionary giving and employee giving under the blanket of neutrality?

Americans are increasingly seeing their company as a place for activism. A 2019 study found that over one-third of American employees have spoken up to support or criticize their employer’s actions over an issue that affects society, and I predict 2020 data will show a significant spike in that percentage. So, what can corporations do? Spoiler alert: they can’t stay neutral.

Companies must examine how the employee donors and nonprofit recipients on their employee giving platforms align with their corporate values. I recommend integrating the often-isolated philanthropy paradigm into existing corporate structures for decision-making around values and ethics. For example:

  • Confer with the company’s ethics and compliance team about how third-party due diligence decisions are made—on what criteria would the company choose not to do business with a supplier, channel partner, or business intermediary? Shouldn’t those same criteria apply here?
  • Facilitate regional annual conversations with business and support function leadership in all key markets to align on any new issues emerging in the sector (#MeToo, immigration, etc.). Find out what local sales reps and business leads know about local groups; they may be able to flag local organizations they know are problematic (perhaps a front for governments, or corrupt agencies).
  • Ask leaders to incorporate these conversations into their regular business strategy and report back to a single team within corporate philanthropy, so everyone is on the same page. Are there customers local business leads intend to avoid due to potential backlash or misalignment with corporate values? Might they be connected to some of the employee giving options?
  • Corporate philanthropy teams should ask their employee giving platform providers to provide a mechanism to filter out nonprofit organizations that meet certain criteria. For example, including or excluding organizations based on the focus of their mission or whether the organization self-identifies with any particular religious or geopolitical affiliation. If your corporate grants support only non-religious affiliated organizations or aren’t given in certain locations, you likely should expand these same criteria to your employee giving program.

Then comes the hard part, making decisions based on these inputs and determining whether to inform employees you’ve made them. This is where the board, C-suite, and key thought leaders in the company need to come together and have a messy Neutrality Paradox conversation and make tough decisions about how and where to draw lines.

Missteps could easily result in employee backlash by those feeling that organizations aligned to their personal values were excluded, or worse, that those misaligned were given preference.

This is where a strong, clear, and well-articulated corporate culture is brought to bear—and where having a brilliant corporate communications team is critical.

I found myself shocked and impressed when the CEO of one of my former employers announced at a senior leadership meeting that he wanted any employee with concerns about the ethics of a potential deal or customer to bring it to him directly. At first, I thought it was a well-placed plug from the ethics department. But he explained that the leadership had been struggling with whether to accept business from a foreign government that would be using the company’s technology to engage in activities broadly considered to be on the slippery slope to human rights violations. These weren’t obvious and scandalous violations but the more technical kind that require some dot-connecting to see the potential harm to citizens. He discussed the details of the dilemma with us to help us see it wasn’t black and white. He explained his job was to balance (or rather, juggle) the value proposition of the deal to shareholders, the potential damage or benefit to the company’s reputation in the media, alignment to corporate values, and the safety of employees in the country where the technology would be used.

The CEO didn’t give us a magic answer, but we had the conversation. He challenged us to think when we see indicators that customers may intend to use the company’s technology for questionable purposes. Then he told us to lay that at his feet. It was powerful and gave me incredible respect for the CEO and the company culture that so easily accepted the discussion.

One thing is certain, companies won’t have the luxury of avoiding these topics under the guise of neutrality much longer. Corporate philanthropy teams should get started with the uncomfortable conversations and strategic planning now.

Learn more about the Neutrality Paradox and Ethos, a human-centered mindset and approach to help us make more confident decisions with integrity.


Featured Photo: Launch the USAP Community School in Zimbabwe by Education Matters

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