Why and How You Give Matters as Much as What You Give

By John McNeel in Guest Blogger
November 14, 2016 05:00

One of the most remarkable and, honestly, dispiriting aspects of the 2016 election -- a dystopian exercise in democracy that historians will be studying for years to come -- was the utter lack, in the words and actions of the candidates and their supporters, of even the most basic spirit of generosity.

Generosity was lacking, certainly, among the candidates towards each other; among their supporters towards other fellow citizens of a different political persuasion; and most notably -- and this not only on the rabid fringes of this highly fraught campaign -- there was a disquieting lack of generosity, in general, for "The Other," meaning simply understanding and empathy for people who are different from and often less privileged than ourselves. If generosity towards others is one of the hallmarks of humanity, this was a decidedly inhumane political season.

And yet, ironically, one sub-narrative in this generosity-challenged campaign (and one that is now overlooked, swept away in the aftermath of its stunning outcome), was the focus thrown onto the candidates' respective philanthropic initiatives and efforts. What, how and why the candidates give back, contribute to the community, commit to helping others, became yet another political football, thrown back and forth as the candidates and their teams tore apart each other's intentions and actions in the philanthropic arena. In both cases, the point was that what appeared as charity was in fact a sham.

The accusations thrown about were as grim, disheartening and, occasionally, as flatly unfounded as the rest of this soulless campaign's overheated rhetoric. Trump was accused of having used his Foundation, amongst other things, to settle lawsuits, to order a portrait painted of himself and generally to make himself look good (often with other people's money) on the New York and Palm Beach elite social circuits. The Clintons, on the other hand, were accused of having indulged in every imaginable evil through their family's Foundation, from profiting themselves from the generosity of corporate, governmental and individual givers, to practicing pay for play for political influence -- all of which is debatable but which also notably overlooks any redeeming features of the important and good work that the Clinton Foundation actually did achieve.

 Giving is the gift that keeps on giving

There's no doubt about it: charity embellishes reputation. It's true for the two candidates in this election, for the Clintons in crafting Bill's and Hillary's legacy, for Trump largely in crafting a successful business strategy. It was also true throughout history: take the robber barons from a century ago, for example, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Vanderbilts, who made their fortunes and then spent years burnishing their reputations through philanthropy.

Today, it has become a hot topic for a new generation of "robber barons" in Silicon Valley, where "philanthro-shaming" has become the rage. The titans of the new economy are now made to feel ungenerous if they haven't taken steps to leave billions to charity. Last year, I wrote about this with respect to the notoriously stingy and unphilanthropically inclined Steve Jobs.

Beyond the charitable giving of technology billionaires, though, corporations themselves are increasingly under the philanthropy magnifying glass. That there is still room for the generosity of corporations to grow is captured in one startling statistic: of the more than $300 billion channeled towards charitable giving in the US every year, only about 5% comes from corporate philanthropy; the rest is from private individuals, the vast majority of whom, incidentally, are not billionaires.

The reality today is that business and philanthropy have become inextricably bound together. If Hillary's campaign slogan was "love trumps hate," when it comes to business increasingly today purpose trumps strategy. That's not to say that you don't need a strategy and it certainly isn't to say that you don't need profit. Purpose and profit in fact go hand-in-hand, as one of the great evangelists of Purpose Richard Branson has said on numerous occasions. But what it does mean is that Purpose increasingly needs to inform how a business not only goes to market but how it engages with its consumers.

It's also true that brands, as a subset of why and how corporations give back, have their role to play. As brands learn to embrace Purpose as a means to enhance the "pact" they have with their customers, they also have a leadership role in shaping new ways to drive brand loyalty by empowering those consumers to give back to causes that are most meaningful to them. (In another of my blog posts, I made the modest proposal that brands consider dedicating 5% of their marketing budget towards social good... not purely as a feel good ploy but to bolster brand health and sales through meaningful engagement with consumers.)

When it comes to purpose, doing trumps saying

As with the appearance-vs-reality dichotomy that informed the campaign debate about philanthropy, authenticity of purpose is what really makes the difference between simply broadcasting your good acts and actually delivering. Today, purpose is more about doing than about saying.

Case in point. Back in my advertising career, I had the great privilege of helping to relaunch the Pedigree dog food brand and putting it on the path to purpose.

I can still remember clearly the words of Mars Inc. CEO Paul Michaels on the day we presented our recommended brand strategy, built around everything we do is for the love of dogs. Looking around a room of company and agency executives, Paul said "This is about more than just saying it; we have to do it."

That edict started the Pedigree brand on a path to purpose that eventually informed everything from its corporate culture to its packaging, from its go-to-market strategy to its upstream product innovation, from its marketing to its CSR. In Pedigree's case, the CSR strategy took the form of the now more than a decade old Dog Adoption Drive, which to this day is still helping save thousands of shelter dogs across the country every year.

Today, any company's or any brand's reputation has become inextricably linked to its core purpose. In the broadest sense this connects back to its business strategy and it provides the "why" or the reason that the brand is in the world in the first place. But also increasingly it has forced corporations to confront how their corporate philanthropy, their cause marketing or their CSR programs connect to the rest of what they do to build their business and engage with their consumers.

Companies on the cutting edge of Purpose -- such as Unilever, MasterCardSalesforce.com and Target, to name just a few -- have understood that how they give and why they give is as important as what they give. They've also understood that we live in an age of transparency and authenticity, and one in which silos as an organizational principle are a thing of the past. Just as a political candidate needs to demonstrate true and not just artificial, borrowed or "trumped up" Purpose, these corporations are placing Purpose front and center in how they do business.

Finding the better angels of our nature

As raw as emotions may still be for many of us in the aftermath of this horrendously bitter election, we should remind ourselves of another campaign season, in 1860, when Abraham Lincoln encouraged his fellow countrymen, torn by dark passions and a similar lack of generosity of spirit towards each other, to conjure up "the better angels of our nature."

Although Lincoln spoke these words during his inauguration -- which may give us pause as it was on the eve, and not at the end, of a terrible Civil War -- the phrase still serves as a stirring reminder that charity to others, whether in spirit or in action, in words or in deeds, requires for individuals a true commitment, for countries an unimpeachable set of core values, and for companies a plan and the means to achieve it.

Much of the 2016 campaign, sadly, has been about the darker angels of our nature. I can only hope as a nation we will find our way back towards our better angels, and that our charitable instincts, and our generosity of spirit, will prevail.