How to Do Well at Doing Good

Striking the perfect balance between charity and profit.

Good and well – a subtle but important distinction. It’s the difference between making money and improving lives. It seems to make sense that the two values would rise in tandem – that the more profitable a company, the more it gives to charity. But it isn’t true. The biggest givers are the companies that have charitableness built into their self-definition.

This month we learn how to maximize the good (without sacrificing the well) from Pommashea Noel-Bentley, vice-president of fundraising for the United Way; and Howard Blank, vice-president of entertainment for Great Canadian Casinos.

There’s a reason self-actualization sits atop psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs. Your corporate ideals must be arrived at by a process more rigorous than simply hanging a mission statement in your lobby. When you know who you are, and that self-knowledge includes charity, it’s easier for employees to rally around the idea and to collectively commit to charitable works. “The most important thing is having a really compelling mission,” says Noel-Bentley. “Have a solid idea of who you are.”

If expectation is the mother of despair, choice is the father. That may be the only way to explain the pairing of wealth and depression in North America. The solution? Take choice away. Build into your financial planning the percentages you’re planning to give to charity, says Blank – that is, make the decision to give before, not after. In this way, the commitment is made once, not negotiated separately each time. If only we could make a decision to go to the gym in the same way.

As a company, knowing your community means appreciating the people who are making decisions around you – your competitors, your allies, the bodies that regulate you. Understanding the matrix into which your largesse will flow makes it more effective. “Your community comprises the majority of the people who have an opinion of you,” says Blank. “Don’t just go in there and start throwing money around – anyone can do that.” A better tack: spend some time talking to people and asking yourself if your company’s values line up with theirs.

Whether you’re giving charity or receiving it, you don’t want it to feel like money changing hands. Instead, Noel-Bentley says, create an experience around the giving, a way of strengthening and building meaning. In many ways, this is a storytelling exercise and an appeal to people’s sense of self. “In philanthropy, you need people that truly understand relationship building,” she says. “And for people to care about giving, they need to be treated as individuals.”

When trying to foment some philanthropy, take a page out of the Dell manual: make the end product completely “editable.” A computer is a computer, but if you’ve picked the features, the colour and the decal on the case, you’re more emotionally invested in it. And so it is with giving. “Being process-driven doesn’t work,” says Noel-Bentley. “You’ve got to find the needs and then find out how best to suit them.”