Corporate generosity took center stage in May when Robert F. Smith, the founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity, announced his plan to pay off student loans for Morehouse College’s entire 2019 graduating class.
At the same time, MacKenzie Bezos, the ex-wife of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, signed the Giving Pledge, agreeing to earmark half of her wealth for charitable donations.
As wealthy Americans like Smith and Bezos make public displays of generosity, employees of large and small companies may wish for their jobs to follow suit. This is especially true for millennial and Gen Z workers.
Millennials are the largest generation in the workforce, and many have a vested interest in the social responsibility of companies they patronize or work for. Their Gen Z counterparts are entering the workplace with a similar, if not higher, desire for corporate social responsibility.
According to a 2016 study by Cone Communications, 75% of millennials said they would take a pay cut to work for a responsible company. Cone’s 2017 Gen Z CSR Study also noted that 87% of millennials and 94% of Gen Zers say companies should address social and environmental issues.
Unfortunately, according to author and multigenerational workplace expert Lindsey Pollak, employers often perceive this zeal as a negative trait.
“I often laugh when leaders complain about how their ‘entitled’ millennials come into their jobs on day one and want to make a difference,” she wrote in her book, “The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.”
In an interview, Pollak credited the rise of social media and digital content with making younger workers aware of global crises faster than their older counterparts.
“Members of all generations are purpose-driven and want to find meaning in their lives and in their work,” Pollak said. “I think what’s different today is because of the technology tools that we have, millennials and Gen Zs have a real sense of empowerment that they can make a difference by sending a tweet or making a video.”
Other experts on philanthropy and multigenerational workplaces say companies need to lean into this sense of empowerment if they want to hire top-tier young talent.
They “look at philanthropy and corporate giving as one of their priorities in how they associate themselves with organizations,” said Bettina Deynes, a senior managing partner at The Surrogate CEO, a leadership consultancy in Maryland.
To use philanthropy to their advantage, Deynes said that companies shouldn’t wait for an emergency or for employees to approach them about boosting their corporate social responsibility. “It’s no longer an option just to look the other way,” Deynes said.
Both Pollak and Deynes said companies should implement a strategy that aligns with their overall mission and select a few causes that are important to the organization. “A lot of organizations that really go deep in one area or two areas — as opposed to 25 areas — can be more effective in their giving, because they’re really committed to certain causes over time,” Pollak said.
But Chris Hammond, the founder and CEO of Corporate Giving Connection, cautioned against embracing philanthropy by simply writing a check or selecting a giving strategy with a limited impact.
“It is important for employees to experience the mission in person. Not just contributing to an organization, but getting their hands dirty and planting trees together,” Hammond said. “We’re no longer in the day and age where it’s just money that drives us. We’re looking for more.”
After upgrading their corporate social responsibility, businesses can use philanthropy as a marketing tool, both internally to boost morale and externally to recruit talent and connect with potential partners.
“Who knows what opportunities could come from this employee going and cleaning up a river or street or a park,” said Lisa Dietlin, a Chicago-based philanthropy expert and author of “Transformational Philanthropy: Entrepreneurs and Nonprofits.”
While not all companies have the capacity to donate generous quantities of money or organize large-scale events, there are a few smaller things that managers and leaders can do to bolster corporate giving.
—Communicate with employees: Ask employees what causes matter to them and what they’d like to see in a company-wide philanthropy effort. Develop committees and craft initiatives based on their responses. “It really needs to be a mirror of your company and what the people are actually interested in giving back to,” Hammond said. Employers should also keep social responsibility at the forefront of interviews and even performance review conversations.
“It would be awesome to be able to go to an employee and say to them, ‘Hey you’ve done a great job, we could either give you some sort of compensation or we can give back to an organization of your choice,’” Hammond said.
—Look at your competitors: See what other businesses in your space are funding to get an idea of what issues are most pressing in your industry.
—Beware of guilt giving: Companies that lack a solid strategy are more likely to feel compelled to support multiple causes that don’t fit into their corporate vision. According to Dietlin, passion and a solid plan, rather than guilt, should drive the decision to give.
—Set a budget, but leave a little aside for unexpected requests: While some things, like an annual walk or food drive, are predictable, other important causes or events, such as the #MeToo movement or the crisis in Sudan, can come up without warning.
“Not every request is a guilt request. Some requests are just unexpected,” Dietlin said, citing 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina as examples of sudden crises that mobilized Americans.
With incremental steps to boost corporate social responsibility, companies can place themselves at the forefront of a changing job landscape where employees’ work aligns with their personal lives. More importantly, Hammond said, companies that address pressing causes have the chance to serve a common purpose, absent politics or other dividers.
“It’s all about helping one another and really being able to look at the collective good and help our brothers and sisters that are out there.”
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