North East Initiative on Business Ethics (NIBE)

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Employees Feeling The Corporate Philanthropy Buzz

Ron Beadle, Professor of Organisation and Business Ethics at Northumbria University and Director of the North East Initiative on Business Ethics (NIBE), explores how to engage employees through corporate philanthropy.

A study at Northumbria University has demonstrated the extraordinary impact of engaging employees in corporate philanthropy. But at a time when 76% of the public are looking at organisations’ ethics in deciding who they might work for, it has also raised novel questions for responsible businesses to consider.

Researchers have often demonstrated the reputational benefits for companies engaging in corporate philanthropy; so much so that a whole field ‘Strategic Philanthropy’ sets out to study it.

Recently published research from Northumbria University took a different tack however. Dr Helen Nicholson’s PhD looked at the impact of employee involvement in corporate philanthropy for the workers themselves. Her study, which I had the privilege to supervise alongside Professor Richard Slack (now at Durham), enabled employees at different locations to talk about their own experiences. Some of the results were far from what we anticipated.

The study was conducted at John Lewis Partnership, well-known for its excellent treatment of people, but less well-known for its extensive philanthropy. At John Lewis, employee-partners valued the control they exercise over the choice of good causes that the business supports.

In recounting tales of how their work had helped beneficiaries, employees were visibly moved; even many years after the work had been done.

So what sort of work was it? In the Newcastle and Edinburgh stores, it included removing Japanese knotweed from bird habitats, helping set up a charity shop, running a fashion show for a school for children with special needs, creating a scented garden for the blind and many others. For example, did you know that community groups could use a dedicated room at John Lewis stores for meetings; and it is completely free? No, neither did we.

Employee-partners individually nominate projects and then decide collectively which to support. On top of this, under their ‘Jubilee’ scheme the company pays its people to work for voluntary groups for up to six months at a time. This philanthropic tradition is no short-term expedient either. It goes back to the founder, Spedan Lewis, who famously transferred ownership to the employees from the 1920s.

So what was new here? First, employee-partners disapproved of giving customers the final decision over which causes to support. At a time when strategic philanthropy in retail means customers using tokens to vote for good causes, the employee-partners overwhelmingly believed that they should decide on the projects that they were going to work on.

Secondly, there were vigorous debates about whether philanthropy should be visible at all. The Partnership has traditionally been reserved about its charitable work following its founder’s dictum to conduct ‘random acts of kindness quietly.’ Whilst some employee-partners argued that gaining publicity would undermine their philanthropic purpose others were worried that customers might think badly of the Partnership because they did not know of the work that they do.

This research suggests three challenges for your business -

  • Challenge one is to empower your workers to take decisions about which good causes to support; this is about trust and sends a strong message about your values and relationships.
  • Challenge two is to think about whether publicise your philanthropic work at all – because whilst this might demonstrate its true purpose, it might also sacrifice reputation.
  • Challenge three is to find a way of involving both employees and customers in your business’s philanthropic work.

The full paper is entitled: Nicholson, H; Beadle, R and Slack, R. (2019) “Corporate Philanthropy as a Context for Moral Agency: A MacIntyrean Enquiry”. You can find it at the Journal of Business Ethics website

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