Corporate philanthropy and Social justice

From a Comment posted to Stanford Social Innovation Review, invited by friend and colleague Dr. David Fetterman. 

I find it hard to put corporate philanthropy and social justice into the same sentence.

Some louts might even say that corporate philanthropy is an oxymoron, and that social injustice is caused by corporate practices run amok.

After all, don’t so many of the thousands of documented disparities in the performance of our private markets and public systems – in their delivery of different outcomes for different groups in hiring and employment practices, salaries and benefits, and advancement opportunities, to say nothing of the harmful effects of manufacturing and marketing practices seen in neighboring communities, ecosystems, and labor markets – stem from the intensely short-term profit-driven motives of corporate executives and their shareholders?  These disparities are huge, persistent, and consistent across virtually all arenas of American life, from health to education, from economic development to criminal justice, and more.

If the role of corporate philanthropy is to do more than distract us from these realities of corporate practice, some serious revision of corporate work is needed, both in the name of philanthropy but even more in business practice-as-usual.  There must be some good examples, and perhaps Hewlett-Packard’s Digital Villages Project is the “shining example” that your practice of empowerment evaluation reveals.  If so, I share your hope for the field, and nominate three possibilities for consideration.

1. To better gauge the benefits of corporate philanthropy, there should be more widespread use of the principles of empowerment evaluation, to which you have contributed so much, in which intended beneficiaries of philanthropic gifts are included in evaluation planning and activities to better reflect their interests, knowledge, and ability to identify and analyze critical evidence.  Empowerment evaluation was apparently used to excellent effect to better understand the upsides and downsides of HP’s Digital Villages.

2. To better shape corporate practice to be less harmful and more benign, there should be more widespread use of advisory panels to study avenues for reducing disparities and improve outcomes to people and communities in those arenas directly affected by corporate decision making.  Northern States Power (now Xcel Energy) used to have a Low-Income Advisory Task Force and used it to excellent effect in shaping or reviewing corporate policy.

3. To incent corporate practice that stands to reduce harmful disparities, changes to corporate tax code (now, post-election, so open to scrutiny) should be considered.  A corporation that can demonstrate reduced disparities through changes to its practice in any of the arenas affected by its decision making should be penalized less, or rewarded more.  Financial institutions that can show changes in lending practices that are less predatory, for example, could be penalized less.  Manufacturing companies that can show changes in employment practices that make training more available could be rewarded.

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Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / December 4, 2012