The Top Question Corporate Leaders Should be Asking

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One simple question can harness the power of strategic giving to address turmoil and support recovery.

Whatever line of business we’re in, from hospitality to manufacturing, finance to retail, we’ve entered a period of broad awakening and reckoning about ongoing oppression and institutional racism. In the context of the pandemic, we’ve also witnessed how our support systems are grossly inadequate at meeting the needs of our communities. In response, many companies are acknowledging the state of affairs and stepping up.

We’ve seen Bank of America pledge $1 billion a year for four years “to help local communities address economic and racial inequality accelerated by a global pandemic.” The shoe company Keen promised 100,000 shoes to people directly impacted by COVID-19. The Danish company LEGO is putting $4 million toward racial equality education for kids and U.S. organizations supporting Black children. These are just a few examples of the many companies stepping up nationally and internationally in support of employees, communities and causes. 

And we need more. Effectively recovering as a society and creating the lift we need for a different and better future requires ongoing and comprehensive leadership across government, philanthropy, and the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. While we need to act fast, that doesn’t mean companies should trip over themselves to “do the right thing.” Instead, we need companies to lead with intention. How to do that? Start by asking Why.

Ask Why to Understand Your Purpose

In his best-selling book Start with Why, author Simon Sinek implores readers to determine their “why” to identify their purpose, cause, or belief. People need to understand why you do what you do, not just what you do or how you do it. Businesses should know their raison d’être. Sinek explains that people do business with those whose purpose aligns with their own beliefs. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The same goes for your giving.

If what I’m saying sounds obvious, it’s anything but. For example, I’ve seen countless companies embark on creating a giving plan by asking all kinds of tactical “how” questions: “How often should our corporate giving committee meet?” or “How do we create an employee-matching program?” We gravitate toward tactical questions since they seem easier to answer and implement, and don’t require in-depth exploration. We feel like we’re making progress when we can check these tactical items off our to-do lists. But tactical questions don’t get us where we need to go.

Ideally, your philanthropy and business inform one another. When your “why” truly aligns with your values and connects with your reason for being, employees, customers and community, it creates a powerful feedback loop of purpose. We’re seeing lots of companies step up with donations on pandemic relief and Black Lives Matter, which is good. But the companies that do so within a broader strategic framework of transformation will go further. Those that recognize and address their own mistakes and flaws will make a more significant difference. They’ll also avoid backlash about inconsistencies in how they show up. Case in point, this New York Times article: Social Media Giants Support Racial Justice. Their Products Undermine It.

Ask Why to Question Assumptions

There is no shortage of causes to support or problems in the world. Likewise, there is no shortage of solutions that sound good, such as access to healthcare, economic security, education, and childcare. If you don’t ask “why?” you might jump into funding one of these solutions without knowing if it’s right for your company. When you ask “why?” to question assumptions, you get to the substance of why your company should be involved. Asking “why?” helps you revisit your funding’s overall purpose and keeps you focused on the long game.

Here are a couple of ideas that sound good, but ultimately might lead you in the wrong direction. You just returned from a corporate giving conference where the buzz was about the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), so you decide you should fund clean water and sanitation. But does it align with your corporate purpose and advance your charitable strategy? Or, you assume that “We should start a corporate foundation.” Why? Why form a foundation and not a donor-advised fund or corporate giving program? Do you really want to create and manage a nonprofit 501c3 organization?

Asking “why?” does not imply an idea is bad. Of course, clean water and sanitation are hugely important, and a corporate foundation might be the best option for you. But if you don’t ask “why?” to question assumptions, you might get derailed. You could waste time and resources chasing shiny objects that don’t alight to your corporate purpose and giving strategy.

We often ask the wrong questions, jumping to “how” before fully exploring “why” or “what.” If you start by asking “why?” to understand your purpose and to question assumptions, you will attain clarity, inspire others to join you, and turbocharge your impact velocity. In addition to a smart business decision, it will also be smart for society — for your customers, employees, and for the communities in which you live and work.

If you’d like to dig a little deeper on these and additional concepts, please download my article: 6 Mistakes Philanthropists Make During A Crisis (And What They Can Do Instead). Also, many of the ideas mentioned here are discussed in my recently-released book, Delusional Altruism. The book offers 11 more questions all Funders should be asking right now. It also provides more in-depth information and examples of ways we hold ourselves back and how to achieve more significant impact in philanthropy.

This article was originally written for and published by CEOWORLD magazine.

© 2020 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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90-Day Coaching: I’ll help you respond, stay focused, and lead through this crisis with a weekly call and unrestricted email access. This is not a regular offering of mine, it’s intended to help you not just navigate your philanthropy through the storm but to find sunny skies, and to be part of your support system. Together we can discuss any aspect of your work, such as managing your team and board remotely, identifying and implementing top priorities, developing new approaches and partnerships, maintaining focus, not feeling overwhelmed, and preparing for the recovery. I have limited slots, so if you are interested, write me at kris@putnam-consulting.com to learn more and sign up.

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About Kris Putnam-Walkerly

I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I’ve helped hundreds of ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations, Fortune 500 companies and wealth advisors strategically influence and allocate over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts. I was named one of “America’s Top 20 Philanthropy Speakers” three years in a row, I write about philanthropy for Forbes.com, CEO World, Alliance Magazine, De Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as Bloomberg, NPR and WSJ.

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