The art of giving Featured

9:52am EDT July 22, 2002

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with a friend who owns a small business to discuss the hot trends in his industry. The conversation shifted to the issue of philanthropy, and for the next half hour, we debated the merits of business leaders getting involved in charitable giving.

My friend explained that he didn’t serve on any boards, but his company donates thousands of dollars each year to various organizations. His employees, he added, volunteer their time for worthy causes. They help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, hold food drives for the United Way and dole out meals at area homeless shelters.

“What about personal involvement?” I asked. “Do you donate any of your own time or money to worthy causes?”

My friend nodded. He said he was a volunteer for a local nonprofit agency. I asked what motivated him.

“Because I strongly believe in what they do.” he replied.

His answer made me think about other reasons corporate leaders get involved with charity. Do some do it out the goodness of their hearts? Do any do it to make their companies look good in the eyes of the community?

Lacking an absolute answer, I turned to an expert. My fiancée, Laura, has been a professional fund-raiser for nonprofit agencies for the better part of 10 years. I put the question to her, and she explained that she’s found three reasons why CEOs and other business leaders get involved in philanthropy:

  1. To be good corporate citizens.

  2. To contribute something back to the community and support the people who support them.

  3. Because they truly believe in a particular cause.

All sounded like reasonable answers, but being a journalist, I had to explore the subject further. Over the next few days, the issue of corporate philanthropy became a sort of philosophical quest. I was going to determine once and for all why business leaders give back to the communities they live and work in, and I wouldn’t rest until I was satisfied with the results.

One colleague suggested I look to Spanish rabbi and philosopher Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides) for an answer. Maimonides, he reminded me, developed an eight-rung ladder which ranks the various levels of giving, from the most virtuous to the least virtuous.

The most virtuous, Maimonides espouses, is a gift that prevents another person from becoming poor by providing him with a job or by lending money to help him through a difficult time. At the other end of the spectrum is charity which is given grudgingly.

Interesting, I thought. But still not a complete answer.

Later the same day, I received a letter which contained the results of a survey of business executives on the subject of community involvement. Now we were getting somewhere. According to the Institute for Educational Leadership, here are the five main reasons executives themselves cite:

  1. Giving something back

    They note their obligation to help those who have been left out of society’s riches, particularly children.

  2. Going beyond philanthropy

    Direct personal involvement provides more satisfaction, they say. And it provides greater value than simply writing checks.

  3. Making things work

    Giving back provides the opportunity to pass along effective business principles to help rebuild poorly functioning public service systems.

  4. It’s good for business

    Improving life for people in low-income neighborhoods is good for business. It results in a better-qualified work force and healthier neighborhoods.

  5. Advocacy

    There’s something to be said about believing in — and working toward — a cause. Your heart is in your work.

I spent the next hour reviewing the survey results and all the notes I’d made during my short-lived quest. And here’s what I’ve learned about the art of giving:

  • Don’t get involved because you feel obligated; get involved because it’s what you want to do.

  • Choose something about which you’re passionate. If you don’t care about the cause, it’s not worth your time or effort.

  • Finally, the bottom line is that community involvement is one of those rare decisions that benefits everyone. Nobody loses. And those are, without a doubt, the best — and smartest — decisions any business leader can make.

Dustin S. Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN. He donates his time to serve on the PR committee of Achievement Centers for Children and as editor of The Press Club of Cleveland’s monthly newsletter, the Byliner.