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DBC: David Rylander: Strategic philanthropy makes sense for businesses, students

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David Rylander

April is National Volunteer Month. Businesses, both small and large, should take notice and learn to incorporate strategic philanthropy into their business model. 

David Rylander
David Rylander

Society expects businesses to give back year-round, not just in April. Whether this is done from the heart or out of obligation, businesses can get much more from the philanthropy of giving back to their communities if they do it strategically.

First, what are the benefits of philanthropy? The most obvious logic is that giving back will help build goodwill for the business, leading to a stronger brand reputation and subsequent success. However, other benefits are worth noting. Supporting your community helps build stronger social and economic bonds, leading to long-term success for everyone in the community. For example, helping someone get an education or a job creates another consumer and contributor to the community.

Philanthropy also is important for employees. A 2015 Deloitte millennial survey showed that six in 10 millennials say a "sense of purpose" is part of their choice in where to work. Employees expect more than simply doing their job and getting paid. When employees feel good about their organization's sense of purpose, the Deloitte survey shows this leading to higher organizational performance and employee satisfaction. Satisfied employees are more likely to have higher commitment to the organization, less absenteeism and better productivity.

Given the benefits, how can businesses practice philanthropy strategically? And how can colleges prepare students to be an integral part of that culture of purpose and giving back?

Strategic philanthropy involves intentional planning for how to give back with meaning and purpose. A business should involve employees in deciding how to focus their philanthropy and volunteer activities. Ideally, this should follow a strategic process of identifying needs in the community, seeing where those needs align with the organization's values and abilities, then developing plans for sustainable efforts to meet those needs.

At Texas Woman's University, the Enactus student organization models this approach each year. Enactus (formerly known as Students in Free Enterprise) is an international organization that promotes entrepreneurial action to create sustainable solutions that benefit people around the world. 

TWU's Enactus group has done projects in Denton and beyond for more than 20 years, making a positive impact on children, victims of abuse, homeless people, small business owners and more.

This year's projects include: 

 -- making and selling candles in old wine bottles to raise money to support homeless veterans;

-- holding workshops to help women better prepare for getting a job and to prepare nutritional meals on a budget;

-- providing books to start a library at a poor school in Zambia; and

-- continuing a project that is lifting up a poor community in Belize through education and community support.

Enactus uses a model of strategic philanthropy to enable students to learn experientially by giving back to the community in a more powerful and lasting way. In the process, students learn valuable skills such as project planning and management, leadership, teamwork, communication, networking and other basic business skills. This prepares them for the needs of businesses and helps them develop their values framework for continuing volunteer action.

Businesses can adapt this Enactus approach to have an even stronger impact with their philanthropy. Some ways to optimize the impact include:

-- giving employees a meaningful role in the development of ideas and projects;

-- giving employees paid time to do coordinated volunteer work in the community;

-- matching employees' contributions to targeted charitable efforts; and

-- sponsoring special events where employees can work together with the community.

I have heard from employees who were disappointed in their employer because the actions did not match the words. For example, a business proclaimed its support for Habitat for Humanity yet would not give employees a paid day to volunteer in building a house. Employees and customers will see through empty commitments.

For this National Volunteer Month, think about how your business can be more strategic and intentional about how you give back to the community. Get employees involved in the entire process. Identify a need that you can address in a meaningful way, then commit to it with money and volunteer efforts. 

This will build a stronger organizational culture, increased goodwill among employees and the community, and a better community for us all.

David Rylander is a professor of marketing at Texas Woman's University and can be reached at drylander@twu.edu.