At last week’s Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) 2012 Corporate Philanthropy Summit in New York, I had the opportunity to attend the “Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leading Corporate Philanthropy” breakout session. As moderator of the session, Kimberly H. Young, Director of Corporate Services at the Council on Foundations (COF) presented findings from the COF’s recently released report.

The research that COF conducted for this report painted a picture of the corporate philanthropy field as one that was bifurcated, in limbo, and in need of transformation. Intended to spark change in the field, the report presents recommendations to help corporate philanthropy leaders redefine their roles and create a more strategic and catalytic approach to corporate giving.

In the session, the speakers weighed in on the five main recommendations presented in the report:

  1. Create a new narrative for corporate philanthropy as an investment in society.
  2. Develop an inclusive “operating system” for philanthropic investment.
  3. Professionalize the field.
  4. Improve collaboration, communication, and knowledge sharing.
  5. Mobilize “field level” leadership behind this agenda.

After attending the session, my main takeaways include:  

Think beyond philanthropy.Corporate giving professionals need to think about the various ways—including but not limited to philanthropy—that their companies can contribute to creating social and environmental change around the world.  As Dr. Michael Bzdak, Director of Corporate Contributions at Johnson & Johnson, phrased it: “Philanthropy used to be the only tool in our company’s toolbox for social change, but now we have a variety of tools.” The COF report outlines several assets that companies can leverage to create social impact. The financial resources they bring to the table is just one of them. Others include a company’s business, human, reputational, and relational assets, which can include skills-based employee volunteering, and in-kind donations.

Build bridges. To increase the impact of their philanthropy activities, corporate philanthropy leaders need to build strong bridges internally and align their giving priorities with broader corporate strategy. In speaking about the changing role and perception of the Intel Foundation internally, Wendy Hawkins, Executive Director of the Intel Foundation, said: “Over the last ten years, we [at the Intel Foundation] have become the partner of choice within the company … We now partner extensively with the sales and marketing organization, the manufacturing organization, and others globally.” These partnerships have increased the impact of the Intel Foundation’s work and this holds true for many others as well. In keeping with this theme, many session attendees noted that one of the most effective ways to ensure that their corporate foundations are aligned with company strategy is to hire team members who have experience working in others parts of the business.

Be selective. My final takeaway from this session was that companies need to be selective about the issues and causes that they support. Rhonda Mims, President, ING Foundation at ING Americas, said:“For us, it was a transformative moment when we realized we couldn’t be everything to all people.” And, the trends back this up. According to CECP’s recent research, companies are starting to focus their giving on one or two select issues as opposed to a larger group of less strategic areas.

As the COF report shows us, there are many ways that corporate giving professionals can take steps to make their work more strategic and catalytic. As companies increasingly move in this direction, we will see even more innovative and systems-changing impact as a result of this work.