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Achieving Success in the Transition to a Deeper Philanthropic Impact

By DeShele Dorsey and Denise Yap

Corporate philanthropy progressively has become more entrenched as a normal and necessary business function. Particularly over the past decade, companies have become adept at leveraging their core competencies to create strategic philanthropy programs that align with their internal DNA and showcase their good deeds to the outside community. The resulting benefits — a boost in brand recognition, enhanced corporate image, employee engagement, and consumer loyalty — undoubtedly have been an important motivation and a part of the litmus test for substantiating philanthropic investments, particularly over the long haul. Companies that have garnered such meaningful results also have adopted more sophisticated approaches and have leveraged strategies that make their philanthropic efforts effective.

Yet, recent opinion and commentary around corporate community involvement have flagged a fundamental shift that promises to become the driving force of future corporate philanthropy. Several publications, including Weber Shandwick’s Why Corporations Invest in Corporate Responsibility, have concluded that the number one reason business leaders dedicate resources to community involvement and/or corporate responsibility programs is their desire to have an impact on critical societal issues.

This notion represents a transitional change as to how managers and leaders must design, manage and execute their corporate community involvement programs. But how should a company go about developing programs that produce a tangible impact? Below are six principles that companies should keep in mind as they progress through the various life cycles of their respective philanthropic agendas.

Develop an Actionable and Sustainable Strategy

Creating an impact on an issue does not happen overnight and cannot manifest in a vacuum. It is important to connect a company’s social agenda with its overall strategy for future business growth. 

This interdependent relationship will ensure that philanthropic efforts are sustainable and relevant to the company’s approach to doing business and establishing its presence as a good corporate citizen.  When looking to create or sharpen a corporate philanthropy agenda, companies should develop a clear, concise and actionable strategy, keeping in mind what is required for effective execution and for resonance with their particular cultures, values and expertise.

Solid philanthropy programs with a track record of success are those most likely to permeate their work throughout the company. Starting and maintaining a connection between a company’s philanthropic program and its corporate goals establishes a mutually beneficial relationship that perpetuates a permanent bond between social impact efforts and business functions. Although full integration of a philanthropic agenda into other business functions can be a challenge, it is essential to garner results and a lasting impact. 

Set and Measure Goals

Companies should determine goals at the outset of any strategic plan. Then they can realistically evaluate what can be accomplished given the amount and type of resources available, from cash to business acumen to proprietary assets. Next, companies should set and establish proof points to demonstrate impact (e.g., the percentage increase in children matriculating into higher education, the number of new businesses seeded and still in operation 24 months later). 

Understanding how the company wants to create its impact will help determine the funding priorities and best methods for investing resources to solve and address the social issue of choice. By setting goals early on, companies can carry out their philanthropic activities with a mental framework that makes it easier to document results and share impacts with stakeholders.

Choose the Right Partners

Finding the right partners takes time, thoughtful analysis and commitment. True partners not only add value but can inspire a company to accomplish goals that exceed what was previously imagined. 

Companies should take advantage of the knowledge, experience and expertise strategic partners offer in order to fully understand an issue’s complexity. In particular, nonprofit partners can provide critical insight otherwise unattainable to companies simply because they are not in the trenches each day. 

However, partnerships should not be limited just to the nonprofit community. Managers of philanthropic programs need to consider the renewed focus on multi-sector collaborations; such collaborations can help managers determine the appropriate mix of relationships necessary to achieve their companies’ social agenda. Accordingly, the process of partner selection itself can boost awareness of how best to engage institutions that are not necessarily a traditional part of the sphere of influence surrounding a cause.

For example, in education it is natural to turn to organizations working specifically in that space, but are there other thought leaders, activists, advocates and the like from other disciplines that should also be engaged to help advance your company’s philanthropic efforts?

Understand Gaps to Refine Your Focus

The concerns, challenges and areas of need within social causes aren’t static! It is essential that companies keep a pulse on new ideas, program models and innovations taking place within the causes they support. Continuous learning builds awareness of the interconnectedness of issues and helps to identify gaps that need to be addressed to accomplish a tangible impact. 

In this way, sources of unmet need can be leveraged to carve out and refine a company’s commitment within a cause. Companies often begin with commitments to a small set of causes with multiple funding priorities. But with time and a deeper knowledge of the issues, program managers can discover ways to narrow the focus and concentrate efforts for greater results and impact. Pressing an issue in this manner can create distinct positioning for the company as a leader and a clearer articulation of its role in helping to solve a major societal issue.

Participate in Collective Impact

As mentioned, companies must consider the continuum of efforts required to make a meaningful impact within a cause area. Social causes are intricate, and the various challenges within them need to be addressed in league with other stakeholders in order to make strides in finding and creating long-lasting solutions. 

It is essential, then, to collaborate and connect with others – whether they are nonprofits, other donors, or public agencies – to share information, exchange ideas, discuss methodologies, identify duplicate efforts and consider opportunities to align efforts. An open and transparent forum for continuous dialogue will help ensure that the “big picture” is always kept in view and that mutual goals are identified and met, so the limited resources available across institutions are utilized more effectively.

Communicate Progress

What you say or do not say influences your stakeholders’ perceptions and beliefs. The onus is on the company to devise a communications plan that outlines the target audience, the key message and the most appropriate distribution channels for delivering the company’s thoughts, ideas and information regarding its philanthropic efforts.

This is not to say that the company has to execute its plan alone, but without clear direction, employees, consumers and others are left to formulate their own opinions. Companies should constantly tweak key messages, work with nonprofit partners to share and disseminate successes and document their efforts in order to build their visibility and presence as corporate citizens.

Achieving Success and Impact

No matter where your company is in its philanthropic life cycle, it is important to remain valuable and relevant in today’s business environment, which demands that companies take a proactive approach to fulfilling their part as corporate citizens.

This year and beyond will be marked by ever greater challenges in terms of what is considered the standard of excellence for corporate community involvement and corporate responsibility. The principles and ideas shared above are an attempt to give managers a pathway to enhance their efforts and work toward increasing their companies’ impact in the years ahead.     

From the Desk Of...

In November 2010, Susan Koehler was appointed the Senior Manager of Community Involvement at Sam’s Club. In her new role, Susan spearheads the retailer’s community involvement strategy nationally and across all 600 local club communities. At the national level, Sam’s Club supports three strategic giving areas: youth entrepreneurship education, small business support, and health and wellness and executes its signature Member voting campaign.  Locally, individual clubs address specific community needs, participate in volunteer activities and coordinate large-scale food donation drives as part of Walmart’s $2 billion commitment to fighting hunger.  Changing Our World asked Susan to share her plans for 2011.   

1.  What is on tap for Sam’s Club Community Involvement in 2011?

This year, our objective is to focus on reconnecting with our grantees to better understand their work and impact and to educate them about our mission and strategic approach. Our program is relatively new so it is important we establish strong relationships with our grantees so we can truly collaborate. We are also planning our second annual voting campaign, where we ask Sam’s Club Members to help us direct a portion of our funding to causes that matter the most to them.

2.  Being a membership organization is unique. Can you share more about how Sam’s Club engages its Members?

Our Members are at the center of everything we do! This value drives our core business strategy so it is important to us to include Members in our Community Involvement as well. Last year, we developed our signature voting campaign to give Members a voice in our giving.  The campaign leverages multiple channels including social media and in-club to collect Member votes on which causes they want to see Sam’s Club support. In 2010, more than 125,000 members helped to award $1 million grants to KIVA and YMCA of the USA and additional grants of at least $250,000 to six other leading nonprofit organizations that provide important programs in the areas of youth entrepreneurship education and small business support.  Our hope is to engage even more members in 2011 as the campaign will focus on health and wellness.   

3.  Health and wellness is a new priority for Sam’s Club; what are you doing in this area and how does it tie to your business?  

As a leading membership warehouse club and the 8th largest retailer in the U.S., we are constantly using Member Insights to guide the business and truly understand how to best serve the 47 million Members who look to us to provide them with value on merchandise and services. Health and wellness has always been a priority for Sam’s Club and as the population ages and the incidence of preventable chronic disease continues to increase, we know we can do more to keep our Members and our communities well. On the business side, we are increasing our offerings of fresh, healthy products, conducting free monthly health screenings in our clubs nationwide and offering Members access to the innovative Prevention Plan at a reduced rate.  To reflect our commitment to health via Community Involvement, we kicked off our Health and Wellness giving area at the end of last year with $2.5 million in grants to organizations working to fight chronic disease and make healthy choices simple and accessible for individuals, families and small business owners. Our partners include Sesame Workshop, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, The YMCA of the USA and the Oasis Institute

4.  What is the #1 tip you would share with other leaders in the field to drive their success?

Communicate! Communicate! Communicate! Seek every opportunity to share with others inside and outside your organization about the important work you are doing and how it benefits the business and the community. Identify internal champions to help get your message out there and to buy into your strategy. Leverage the organizations you’ve funded to help tell your story and share the impacts you have helped to make together.   

Want to keep up with Susan and Sam’s Club Community Involvement? Follow @samsclubsusan on Twitter! 

Unilever Commits to Environmental Sustainability

Changing Our World congratulates the Unilever U.S. Foundation for demonstrating its commitment to environmental sustainability with an RFP open to organizations supporting America’s National Parks. Preserving and protecting the almost 400 national parks is a key focus of Unilever’s approach to sustainability in the United States. For nearly two decades, Unilever has provided sustainable solutions to address critical park infrastructure needs and enhance the visitor experience. In addition, the company has engaged employees, consumers and customers through volunteerism and education.  In November 2010, Unilever donated over $300,000 to 32 organizations demonstrating a commitment to promoting health and wellness or environmental sustainability in the parks. Some of the selected programs include:

  • The restoration of walking trails that have fallen into disrepair in Arizona
  • A new Learning Center comprised of sustainable lumber in Tennessee
  • An outdoor recreation program targeting urban youth in Minnesota

This RFP is just one small part of Unilever’s vast environmental sustainability initiatives. For more information, please visit the company’s website:

International Corporate Philanthropy Day

There will be a range of activities taking place on February 28th to honor International Corporate Philanthropy Day:  
  • Senior corporate giving professionals will ring the Opening Bell of the New York Stock Exchange
  • CECP will hold an annual gathering of leading global business CEOs to discuss challenges and opportunities in corporate social engagement
  • The United Nations Economic and Social Council, together with CECP, will hold a special event addressing the role of the private sector in advancing the Millennium Development Goals
  • The Empire State Building in New York and the Wrigley Building in Chicago will be lit in the colors of ICPD, blue and green, to recognize the day’s activities

The entire corporate giving community, including business leaders, government officials, and nonprofit organizations, is invited to participate. For more information, visit:

Meet Denise Yap, Senior Director

Denise has worked in the corporate philanthropy field for more than 10 years and brings extensive experience in signature program development and implementation, cause-marketing, strategic planning, employee engagement and grants management to the Corporate Social Engagement team at Changing Our World. She assists clients in evaluating and designing initiatives for improving corporate community involvement programs, cultivating charitable partnerships and driving organizational performance.

Before joining Changing Our World, Denise was director at Nexus Brands where she was tasked to develop partnerships and programs to fight childhood obesity. Prior to Nexus, she was an independent consultant and advised the U.S. Fund for UNICEF on developing more integrated employee engagement programs with its highest-level corporate supporters. Denise also worked at AIG, where she led the development of the company’s first signature philanthropy program and created effective processes to evaluate and monitor proposals, grantees and systems to meet legal, audit and compliance requirements. Denise served as a Manager of Grants and Program at the Avon Foundation and was instrumental in developing the core components of the Avon Speak Out Against Domestic Violence Program, including Not Seen, Not Heard: Helping Children of Domestic Violence, then the only national grant program dedicated to helping children affected by domestic violence. Prior to Avon, Denise served as program officer at the prestigious Canada–U.S. Fulbright Program and managed the bilateral Scholars and Fellows Program. 

Denise is a former co-chair of the New York chapter of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP). She also served on the Asian American Federation of New York’s Asian American Community Development Fund and is a past board member of the New York Chapter of First Book, an organization that provides books to low-income children and families. Denise holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Manitoba in Canada.  

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