Securing CEO Support for Strategic Philanthropy

Successful corporate philanthropy involves a number of components – from business-inspired strategy and mutually reinforcing cross-sector partnerships to strong measurement practices and innovative community projects. However, one additional element for truly successful corporate giving is an engaged CEO and senior management team. While CEO involvement cannot be the only driver for a company’s philanthropy, top leadership creates a giving environment across an organization and increases the likelihood of programmatic sustainability. This enables a corporate culture valuing generosity, readily offering employee volunteer opportunities and communicating in a manner that strengthens the tie between the company’s business plan and the community’s development goals.

Moreover, from a communications standpoint, the CEO either assists the authenticity of a company’s philanthropic program with the public, or has the potential of leaving the opposite impression. Research shows that consumer expectations continue to rise but the perception of corporate performance is on the decline. Through visible CEO leadership, philanthropy programs can help connect corporate brands to specific causes or nonprofit organizations and support companies in bridging this perception gap.

For this reason, public relations professionals should focus on increasing CEO engagement in community investment initiatives. Without the leadership’s full support and public endorsement, a company’s giving program is at risk of falling flat with employees, consumers, community members and other stakeholders.

Utilize Data
To make the case to top executives, our experience suggests that CEOs respond well to data-driven presentations that resonate from a financial perspective. Start with strategy when communicating with a CEO; strategic investments are measurable, with distinct goals and clear outcomes. Strategic philanthropy involves strong alignment with core business assets. Therefore, identify opportunities that can achieve optimum business and social returns, considering causes that tie closely to the unique qualities of the company’s brand and specific areas of business expertise.

When philanthropy is strategically positioned so that objectives are communicated with transparency and include contextual benchmarking data, the initiative is more likely to withstand external pressures, and the executive team will better understand the long-term value of the investment.

Consider Language
Public relations professionals should closely consider appropriate language and other opportunities to accentuate the business gains when working with senior management. Emphasize the ways in which strategic philanthropy impacts corporate vitality, whether the goal is to grow shareholder value, gain access to new markets or strengthen employee loyalty and productivity. Corporate philanthropy should be communicated as “community investment” rather than “charity,” stressing the business value of philanthropy.

As our organization discovered at our annual Board of Boards’ CEO Conference, top executives who truly understand the value of corporate philanthropy have an interest in discussing the social investment just as they would any other business decision. This involves listening to the market and studying shifting business dynamics. By staying attuned to issues like stakeholders’ increasing expectations, future business needs and industry trends (i.e. growing international giving), CEOs have the opportunity to make educated choices with their philanthropy, selecting programs that align with overall business strategy and can help achieve corporate objectives.

Highlight Sustainability
A financially driven conversation also highlights how the company will attain long-term goals. Building sustainability into a giving program ensures a number of results: measurable impact for both the community and the company; long-term organizational support for the project; compelling communication to shareholders, employees and customers; and opportunities for cross-sector collaboration. Partnerships between non-profits and corporations should generate higher social and economic value for both parties, and the true impact of these efforts often requires a multi-year commitment. It is essential for corporate leadership to understand the value of this type of sustained investment, so companies should strive to report on milestone goals, thereby measuring success throughout the life of the partnership.

In addition to the social benefits, sustainable relationships that have the chance to develop and strengthen over time will ultimately be most advantageous for the corporate partner. These longer-term partnerships will likely lead to opportunities for employee engagement, impacting recruitment and retention; community goodwill and brand building; as well as distinct business advantages like developing new markets for the company.

Social investment, when well planned and executed, creates a positive opportunity for both business and the public. From boosting employee job skills and heightening brand recognition to strengthening communities and building non-profit organizational capacity—business and society both stand to benefit greatly if companies can demonstrate programmatic effectiveness, fiscal accountability and good stewardship with their philanthropic contributions. Involving the CEO and senior management in corporate giving programs enables companies to not only create more effective community investment initiatives, but also to help shape public perception of business.

This article is written by Charles Moore, executive director of the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy. It is currently featured in the PR News 2008 Guide to Best Practices in Corporate Social Responsibility. To order a copy, visit