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Pillars: to Bulldoze or to Bolster

Abstract: Over the past several decades, companies’ shift to defining specific issues of focus was an important improvement. Methods of identifying focus areas are ripe for corporate social impact leaders to update. Why? Problems include still spreading funds too thinly, inability to unlock additional corporate resources, and reinforcing annual cycles with outdated reporting requirements.

The transition from scattered to focused corporate giving is widely known in the corporate social impact field. It’s time to look around at the pillars we’ve built. They were a strong response to replace the old ways of philanthropy that was “just the right thing to do.” Now we can ask ourselves: Are they strong enough to warrant walls and a roof? Or are they stodgy silos restricting the next era of corporate and nonprofit partnerships?


Background on creating the current norm

The origin of pillars (also called focus areas or focus issues) in corporate community investments doesn’t trace back to one specific event. The shift was gradual. Criticisms of haphazard, scattershot grantmaking increased steadily at the turn of the millennium. I trace major widespread adoption of pillars as the norm to around the year 2010.


In the United States, the timing was at the beginning of the historic Obama presidency. The corporate sector was stumbling out of bank failures and auto industry bailouts leaning (financially) on the federal government. In the world of ESG institutions, Integrated Reporting and SASB were entering the scene. In the land that was then called corporate social responsibility, the 2010 CECP (my alma mater) “Shaping the Future” report conducted with McKinsey & Company codified and accelerated the trend for corporate social impact to focus on issues aligned with the business. “Creating Shared Value” emerged as a new framework for economic success around the same time. Then, the 2015 launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals offered global definition to the critical issues that called for cross-sector engagement around the world.


More than a decade after strategic grantmaking became the norm it’s time to evolve corporate community partnerships once again.

Scattershot, short-term grantmaking— even within specific focus areas—can face the same old criticism of being spread too thinly. Too often, pillars serve primarily as a gatekeeper. It’s time to “install an operating update” that builds on what we’ve learned and addresses the glitches that have become apparent in this system. We can acknowledge the progress made and still be open to new opportunities for improvement.


Instead of framing issues, the next era of corporate philanthropy should focus more specifically on solutions. Teams will be required to do the due diligence upfront about what works to drive change. This approach will allow us to track engagement and progress on solving problems more directly. Leaders will have renewed clarity to look at all of the levers they can pull and flex resources for transformational change.


Taking a holistic, collaborative approach to corporate philanthropy requires re-shaping some of our longstanding practices.

Glitch: focus areas help limit issues but don’t help decide what action to take


Shift from naming issue pillars —> to naming interventions


This looks like: Narrowing from a general “workforce development” pillar to investing deeply in apprenticeship programs. Or, swapping the “micro-entrepreneurship” focus for centralizing action on access to capital through Community Development Financial Institutions. (A CDFI is a mission-driven institution with commercial financing services. By providing small business owners and nonprofits financing with competitive rates, flexible repayment terms, and coaching services, they seek to unlock the potential of under-resourced business owners and entrepreneurs.) It could be replacing a focus area of “reducing homelessness” to focusing on expanding access to transitional housing.


A company can then consider what other departments can become involved in expanding access to apprenticeships? What other resources can we unlock for access to capital? What legal expertise can we bring to real estate negotiations to expand the volume of transitional housing options? The conversation doesn’t poke, prod, and scrutinize an issue most non-social impact executives know little about. Instead, it leapfrogs them to the action that is needed.


Salesforce Foundation doesn’t fully leapfrog, but the way they present their focus areas shows a peek into the future with specific mentions of interventions they support. They still say their focus area is education followed by stating they fund educator professional development (an intervention). They still say their focus area is workforce development followed by stating they fund early career exposure (an intervention).


Glitch: churn and uncertainty from yearly renewal


Shift from annual grant cycles —> to multiyear cycles


Engaging in trust-based philanthropy practices helps move from “rinse and repeat” grantmaking to deepening the long-term funding relationships that drive outcomes and redistribute power. Many companies have centralized their grantmaking to a few organizations that have demonstrated traction in their work. Partnerships can then include listening to what they need for capacity building, writing bigger checks, and being transparent about multi-year renewal opportunities so the organization is better able to focus resources around programs vs. fundraising. This might look like agreements with multi-year terms or adding clauses to an annual agreement which indicate intent to renew for multiple years.


Campbell Soup Co. doesn’t make a blanket statement for multiyear partnerships across all of its community investments, but it is part of how it represents Full Futures. This strategic program is not only multiyear but also cross-sector and aligned to the business.


Glitch: annual reporting requirements that intend rigor but draw rancor


Shift from outdated annual report —> to streamlined reporting focused on learning


Work with grantees on developing a reporting strategy up-front, as part of the grant agreement, so they aren’t scrambling to fit data into a reporting system they’ve never seen before at the end of the agreement. Asking what the organization tracks currently and offering specific advice about how that can fulfill the end of year report is a good way to begin the partnership. Focus your team and leadership on what you can learn from the organization’s data rather than judging or scrutinizing how well they checked your boxes.


Use the time you’ve freed up from managing dispersed annual grant cycles or enforcing metrics to become an advocate for the interventions your company supports. Amplify the messages of your partners about the people they serve and the challenges they face.


Taking the (Better) Next Step


If your organization embraces the continuous improvement cycle for its core business functions, why shouldn’t it bring the same attitude to social impact initiatives? Giving out grants to organizations that align with priority pillars is only the start.


If your organization is exploring what’s next in corporate<->community partnerships and needs support to shift toward new practices, let’s talk. I can join a planning retreat to walk your team through steps toward a strategy refresh, measurements, and more.

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