Sustainable Support for Social Causes

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.
Harry Truman. 

I’m a big believer in that maxim.  However, in the case of corporate philanthropy, it’s only partly true.

You see, those of us who work with corporate resources (not foundation money) have to go to our company’s shareholders periodically to make a case for using a portion of their profits for public good.   While the humanitarian in each of us responds, “It’s the right thing to do,” or “It is our civic duty,” all bets are off when times get really tough. Like they are right now in the meat and poultry industry.  $6 a bushel corn and negative quarterly earnings reports make the “good to do” things a lot less compelling for executive decision makers. 

When there are profits to go around, it’s easy to do the “good to do” things.   But when the numbers dip into the red, and the wagons are circled,  activity that has no return on investment is extremely difficult to sustain.

Fortunately, for the past few years, many of us at Tyson have been working to make a business case for the company’s involvement in hunger relief.  We believe we can  demonstrate that, in addition to benefiting society—in our case, feeding hungry people—we can also provide the shareholders a return on investment  for our efforts.  We at Tyson have had the cooperation of some phenomenal partners: Share Our Strength, America’s Second Harvest, Lift Up America, among others.  In future posts, I’ll discuss how we assess and report that ROI.

Meanwhile, there’s an excellent book by James E. Austin of the Harvard Business School, called The Collaboration Challenge, about how non-profits and businesses create sustainable strategic alliances.  It’s a read I strongly recommend, whether you manage a non-profit organization or are involved in corporate philanthropy.  

Those of us in corporate social responsibility frequently use the word sustainability.  But in the end, activity is not sustainable unless you can keep it viable in both good times and bad.

posted by Ed Nicholson