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For decades PR consultants have been encouraging their clients to leverage philanthropy as a means of generating attention and goodwill. In my nastier moments, I call it philan-trophy: corporate giving in exchange for public relations value. The theory goes our customers will choose our products and services over the competition if we represent ourselves as caring, corporate citizens. In addition, our ability to attract and retain the best talent will also improve.

In an age of Habitat builds, charity runs, and deduction-at-source giving, does philan-trophy really work?

Today, corporate contributions to social, environmental and community issues are table stakes – not game changers or market movers. Ask yourself the following questions: would you leave your current bank for another financial institution based on their corporate giving strategy? Not likely. Would you choose your next car because the manufacturer offers educational scholarships to low income families? Doubt it.


As an agency, we support the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) on a pro bono basis. OAFB is a network of 120 community food banks working to end hunger and poverty in the province of Ontario. Over the past seven years, there are many other instances where we have donated or slashed our fees in support of a great cause or worthy organization.

Why do we do it? To make ourselves look good to our clients? To generate networking opportunities and new business leads? To enhance our brand recognition? No.

We do what we can to support the OAFB and others because profitable corporations have a responsibility to contribute to the society in which they prosper – period. We should expect nothing, NOTHING in return. No trophies, dinners or flattering speeches.

Do our staff members feel better about the agency because we “give back” to our community? Yes, I believe they do. However, we have to do a lot more than that to attract and retain the great people that we have.


In an age when everyone has a microphone, tangible results matters.

Take, for example, RBC. They have committed $50 million over 10 years to the RBC Blue Water Project™ – an effort to create an understanding of the value and vulnerability of our water resources. Clean water is an incredibly important issue and it is outstanding that the bank has taken this on. However, could these precious resources be directed in a manner that drives behaviour change, attacking the root causes?

What if RBC put these dollars back into the hands of their customers in exchange for measurable behaviour change? The proposition: reduce your water consumption and we will reduce the rate on your Blue Water Project™ credit card.


A similar principle can be found in comments made by Jeff Bezos in the early days of Amazon. The company conducted a trial to see what was more effective in attracting shoppers to their emerging online retail platform: advertising or discounts. They found that when they took their dollars and turned them back into the hands of the customer in the form of free shipping, they consistently generated a much better return.

So I say to all of those in a position to drive corporate philanthropy programs: give me something of value and I will gladly repay you with my loyalty.


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