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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Should Businesses be 'Giving Back to the Community' ?

I have always been uncomfortable when I hear businesses talk about CSR and philanthropy in terms of 'giving back to the community'. I realize of course that in many ways it is only a turn of phrase, but the language we use is important and the implication of giving back is that we have somehow taken away. And I believe that this is how some people, inside and outside of corporations, think of corporate giving. That we are giving back to compensate for having taken away. The use of the terminology perpetuates the view.

There are different forms of giving. Community investment is exactly what it says it is - a company invests in communities in which it operates for reasons such as employee engagement, customer engagement, market development and risk mitigation. But it isn’t giving back to compensate for having taken away.

Philanthropy is the purely altruistic giving of part of a company's profits to charity. Some companies have philanthropic giving written explicitly into their mission (eg. Wholefoods). Others donate to charity with the implicit support of their shareholders. But again, it isn’t giving back to compensate for having taken away.

If by our actions we are taking away, we should stop taking away, rather than giving back a little to compensate. And I think there is a role for the corporate responsibility practitioner here to be involved not just in philanthropy, but in the broader operations and services of the company and the impact of those activities on the community and environment. Where that impact has negative components there is a need to address and mitigate or reverse that negative impact.

Either way, I would like us to find alternative terminology to “giving back to the community” to describe the activities of corporate responsibility.


  1. Kevin,

    If we are taking away, we should stop - I couldn't agree more.

    On the other hand, "giving" needn't imply "taking". If I give someone a hand, it is certainly not taken from me. And if someone gives me theirs, I will feel moved to give back. Helping other members of the community isn't - it can't be - a zero sum game!

    Thanks as always for provoking thought,

  2. Dear Kevin,
    I agree that language ultimately frames perception, and that "giving back" often has negative connotations that imply (somewhat helpless) dependency on the all-powerful corporation.

    I'm much more interested in "partnership" as a term to describe a more-desirable relationship with the local community. It balances the equation and perhaps does a better job of reflecting reality: the corporation provides jobs, a tax base, and other opportunities for civic support; while the community provides physical space/resources, talent, and a social license to operate. "Giving back" seems to either ignore the balancing of these interests or implies that one party (the corporation) vastly overshadows the other party (the community).

    Best regards,
    Aleksandra Dobkowski-Joy

  3. Kevin,

    I appreciate your post. If we want to change society's perception that companies only "take away," the change should begin with the language used by the business community. Very thought-provoking! Have you anything in mind, re: alternative terminology? I hope you'll consider posting on this topic again!


  4. Kevin,

    Thanks for your interesting and thought provoking blog. I have a different perspective as I believe that the concept of a company "giving back" is extremely relevant and necessary.

    A company’s purpose is to maximize value to its shareholders, and most do just that, but try to feel better about it with their CSR activities. If we take a step back from it all, communities and the people who embody them give substantially more than they receive from said companies in their communities.

    Just for starters, communities endure substantial amounts of noise, traffic, and environment pollution from the companies in their communities in far excess of the representative jobs and tax revenues that those companies provide. Even the most socially responsible companies contribute only single digit percentages of their annual profits back in CSR activities and philanthropy. As an example, BT spends 1% of its net profits in CSR and philanthropy activities, generous by corporate standards; I think that we can agree that this is paltry by human giving standards. Taking it to a more extreme example, the damage done by a fishing fleet or a mining company can never be fully rectified by any amount of “giving back”, but that acknowledgement is a fleeting one. Instead, companies freely admit that they are “giving back” as a feel good measure to counteract their massive “taking away”. To do anything better would be ending their business and industry, obviously something that companies and shareholders cannot fathom. Even green tech companies with their best feet forward to be carbon neutral, pay their financial gurus top dollars to figure out how to avoid taxes along the way, depleting communities of their due.

    I personally believe that any activity that is considered “giving back to the community” is the very least that a corporation could do to balance its inevitable, even if somewhat benign, attack on the communities it resides.

    Thanks for listening!

    Todd Hames

  5. Kathrin, thanks as always for your insightful response. I should clarify that I have no problem with the 'giving'. It is the 'back' with which I am uncomfortable.

    Kitty, I don't have other terminology to suggest, but maybe others do - Aleksandra suggested 'partnerships' (although I think that requires more than purely financial giving).

    Todd, I think your example of mining and fishing is valuable and additional to what I had been considering. One might say that the use of the terminology 'giving back' is accurate in those situations where a local community has suffered disproportionately either for the greater good or due to unanticipated consequences. Sounds to me like it is verging on compensation.

  6. Hello Kevin,
    Thanks for your thought-provoking posting.

    A few months ago at my previous place of employment, I was asked what I do to "give back" to the communities. I responded instinctively that I "contribute" to lessening the suffering of people, that is what I do as a resident on this planet through my personal philanthropic (financial) commitment.

    Companies make business decisions based on its financial well-being first. Therefore, generally-speaking, philanthropy is not on the top of their agenda.

    However, companies can make the workplace environment so that it is easier for all employees to "contribute" to the sustainability of communities wherever they live. I believe this could include contributions of non-financial nature. In this sense Aleksandra's thought of "partnership" is appropriate.

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment. This is my first time being exposed to your blog and I will be a regular reader going forward.

    Best Regards,

  7. There is a simple way to produce billions of dollars of long-term funding for social causes. There is a way to harness the power of Capitalism for the Common Good that avoids government spending, taxes, stimuli, or bailouts. Companies can grant Social Bonuses by donating warrants to charity – something that doesn’t cost them anything to give – and get a deferred tax deduction for the value of the gift. To learn more go to:

  8. Your thoughtful post has good timing. This question is in the air. There are many reasons why giving back to the community is good for business. All day today I have been posting tweets linked to articles about this subject, including my own blog post on
    The other day I met an executive at Accenture who animatedly told me about the incredible value that their CSR program added to the company.
    At a time when non-profits and community organizations are really suffering there are so many ways that businesses both large and small can give back to the community. Thanks to people like you and the many others that have been writing about this, perhaps more and more businesses will become aware of the benefits of "giving back" to the community.