Corporate Philanthropy and Social Justice: An Unexpected Partnership

By Audrey Levitin 

If you work for any kind of a social justice organization, now is the time to consider expanding your outreach strategy. The corporate philanthropic sector has changed, and employees have more influence than ever before. 

AudreyFrankly, this is new. Before the summer protests of 2020 the corporate sector mostly kept social justice causes at arm’s length – utilizing philanthropy to be good public citizens while avoiding controversy. There has been a sea change. Businesses have become surprisingly and suddenly strong allies to organizations working on equality, fairness, reform, and social justice.

The Black Lives Matter movement forced many in the corporate sector to make a choice. While the NFL did not stand by Colin Kaepernick, Nike did. And the NBA, its players, coaches and management spoke in a unified voice about policing reform. Coaches like Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle and Doc Rivers spoke out publicly, as did many players. 

A report by McKinsey & Company, which tracked corporate responses from May to October of that year, found that while 18 percent of the top 1,000 U.S. companies made internal commitments, like diversifying their hiring, another 22 percent pledged to promote racial equity through donations or other means. Those pledges included $100M from Starbucks, and major commitments from diverse companies like Nike and Amazon; the biggest funding numbers come from the financial sector – Citi, PNC, Bank of America each committed more than $1B and Goldman Sachs says it will give $100 million as part of a 10-year $10 billion investment to advance racial equity and economic opportunities for Black women. 

As someone deeply ingrained in funding for justice reform work – I left the Innocence Project after 15 years as Development Director and joined CauseWired – it’s been fascinating to see corporate support for justice work emerge; justice reform organizations including the Innocence Project, the Vera Institute of Justice, Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have been the beneficiaries of significant corporate support.  

The change makes good business sense. Corporations are not bound by the electoral college, and the last Republican to win the popular vote was George W. Bush in 2004. Now hundreds of companies have signed a letter opposing the assault of voting rights. We see this trend continuing. In addition to activist sports figures and celebrities, there are now activist employees. Conversations at DEI committees, human resource departments,and at staff meetings, led to a change in America’s business culture. 

As Lily Zheng wrote last year in the Harvard Business Review: “Corporate Social Justice is a new paradigm that imagines a healthier and mutually beneficial relationship between companies and the communities they interact with. It is driven by the growing desire of socially-aware consumers and employees for companies, especially socially-conscious and forward-thinking companies, to do better. Companies have an opportunity to rise to the occasion and leverage their influence to build a better world for all — including themselves.”

In our work at CauseWired, Tom and I put a social justice lens on our consulting – but we also take a wide view of what constitutes social justice work in the nonprofit community.

Here are four things we recommend you consider when seeking some of the “new” corporate support available for social justice causes.

  1. Seek a low “first step” gift while trying to build a multi-year partnership with the company.
  2. Take the time to see if the company’s philanthropic priorities have changed and who their most recent partnerships are with.
  3. Be sure to center employee engagement as you approach a company. Take the time to review what employees do in the context of their company-connected philanthropy and volunteer work.
  4. Once you find a connection at the company – either through the front door or through a network contact (like a Board member and someone on your Young Professionals Committee), treat that person like a top major donor. Invite them to briefings, personalize all materials, make sure they connect with your leadership.

The world of corporate philanthropy is changing dramatically and in real time. Where doors were previously closed they may very well be opened. A strategic approach that includes employee engagement can lead to new and unforeseen funding opportunities.

Connect with Audrey Levitin about your development strategy. Drop her a line at today.