What is Giving Back?
November 17, 2018

Is it throwing payroll money at glitzy PR packages and brand new Ford Mustangs? Or is it cultivating the values directly in our communities that provide help at a  grassroots level? Is corporate giving leading to a more just and kind society, or is it just a fig leaf?

The season of giving is upon us – with this year’s Big Give event happening this week, it’s interesting to look at how charity happens in America today, and exactly who is giving what to whom.

Sometimes that leads to a fair amount of confusion – as when you put up ideas about grassroots giving against the rather prevalent habit of corporate giving – where companies, big companies and employers set the stage for the charitable process.

What you often see is some amount of ambiguity around how corporate charity works.

There’s often some whitewashing of what companies do to benefit their own ends, some promotion and sometimes overhyping of corporate charitable work, and last but certainly not least, the workplace campaign, where companies take the opportunity to encourage employees to make donations.

Let’s be clear – the employer, a for-profit shop, is asking the workers, many of whom have experienced stagnating wages for 20 years, to gift part of their paychecks to charity, and then the head office will match those funds to show the company giving back. Think about it: if it’s 50/50, who’s sacrificing more?

In reality, if there’s any giving back to be done, it really should be done solely by the shareholders and corporate heads who reap the huge financial rewards of today’s American productivity.

But that’s not really how it works in practice – just take a look at the ubiquitous United Way workplace campaigns that are positioning themselves as the way charity does business in America today.

Some Charitable Definitions

Here’s an interesting link from the Council on Foundations that outlines definitions of different types of giving

There’s the community foundation, which is defined as: “a tax-exempt, nonprofit, autonomous, publicly supported, philanthropic institution composed primarily of permanent funds established by many separate donors of the long-term diverse, charitable benefit of the residents of a defined geographic area.

There’s the corporate foundation: a private foundation that derives its grantmaking funds primarily from the contributions of a profit-making business.”

Then there’s the corporate giving program, which is, by definition, “a grantmaking program established and administered within a profit-making company.”

None of these mention workplace campaigns – the idea of low-wage employees giving up parts of their paychecks for charitable causes. That’s because the idea on its own can be rather repugnant to some people, so it has to be dressed up to really make people think it’s a great thing!

United Way’s Spiel

Take a look at how United Way defines the workplace campaign.

“The United Way workplace campaign unites employees in all offices or branches of a company, and gives them an opportunity to donate, volunteer and speak out for causes that matter to them. You can see the results in your own backyard, even as you’re part of a larger mission to affect change worldwide … the workforce campaign is about more than raising money for worthy causes; it also strengthens connections between employees and their community.”

Isn’t that neat??


It all sounds pretty positive – until you understand the inherent foundation behind it – the workers do the work, the company reaps the gains from productivity, and then both of them together put money into a charitable pot. You have to ask yourself who’s benefiting, besides obviously the people who rely on charity for a decent quality of life.

To put it another way, people have concerns and questions about the efficacy of corporate giving, and how much really of that money really gets to needy recipients.

For example, if a United Way internal campaign manager makes $100,000 a year, and janitors at Coca-Cola are giving parts of their paychecks at wages of about $12-$14 an hour, money that may go towards this guy’s salary, what kind of sense does that make?

You won’t hear it framed or phrased this way in any of the many workplace campaigns that are so common across the nation today.

What you hear from individual employees, though, is a different story. Again and again you’ll hear people resenting being strong-armed into making donations out of an already thin paycheck on a very shoestring family budget. With the costs of healthcare, housing and telecom skyrocketing all together, too many of these working families really are only one step away from having to rely on United Way for donations themselves. You can see that’s an unsustainable system.

Here’s an excellent example – this year, the University of Virginia was hiring a “community resource specialist” whose whole job was to help other employees get access to charity.

Holy cannoli!!

It’s a real head scratcher – until you realize that it’s by design. They want people to accept less than a living wage – and to add insult to injury, they’re going to employ some middle manager at a much higher wage to help them get access to state benefits!

The Coalescing of Corporate Choice

One of the big ideas to understand about corporate giving is that it puts all of the choice squarely into the pocket of the top brass.

Here’s an excellent example of Ford, Coca-Cola and Xerox all dropping Planned Parenthood at the drop of a dime, because it wasn’t good for their bottom line. When all of that money that’s given to charity is subject to the political whims of the top leadership, how safe is that kind of philanthropy?

At The Big Give Challenge, a program of GTKYF Foundation Inc, we have a simple proposal – skip the corporate giving and do some grassroots giving instead. Give directly to the community programs you feel are doing good work. Give at the street level. We are asking member to donate one hour of their professional time – either one hour of labor or a commensurate wage – directly to the needy! Not to some suit and tie.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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