Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tis the season of giving and scoring gentle PR points

IN this season of giving, companies have opened up their hearts and their wallets - but with an eye on how this 'feel-good' factor will burnish their image.

The result is that non-profit organisations serving children, the elderly, the needy and the disabled will take the largest cut of corporate donations. 'Green' causes are also likely to get a little more on the company-led volunteerism front.

Charity-sector watchers like former National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre chairman Willie Cheng says that companies naturally consider the fit and benefit of their giving more carefully than individuals would.

Giving driven by public relations favours causes which offer the highest visibility. These would be the ones with naming rights (scholarships for students and awards for arts and the environment), the ones with likely media coverage (ST Pocket Money Fund and the President's Challenge) as well as customer-relationship building sports and arts sponsorship.

Companies now tend to align their giving to their business, he says, citing how IT companies give money, computers or expertise to bridge the digital divide, or transport and logistics companies lend their manpower and network to aid non-governmental organisations doing disaster relief work.

SingPost says that it chose Food from the Heart as its adopted charity because it could best benefit from the company's delivery and distribution strengths. Its postmen and couriers collect unsold bread and pastries from hotels and a confectionary four days a week on six routes and transport them to self-collection centres four days a week on six routes to support the bread distribution programme to benefit needy families.

But, Mr Cheng says, it is still causes which 'tug at the heart strings' that are most favoured to drive employee engagement via philanthropy. So charities serving the disabled, handicapped, elderly and the poor often dominate corporate giving plans, with children-related causes 'winning hands down', he says.
One with a long-standing focus on 'helping children and young people realise their full potential and promote education' is OCBC Bank, whose adopted charity since 2004 is the Singapore Children's Society. CapitaLand, meanwhile, focuses on giving to underprivileged children in Singapore and overseas via its foundation, and is donating $2 for every e-card sent from its website to the Jamiyah Children's Home this Christmas.

Credit Suisse's local projects, too, mostly involve children - it has a partnership with the Pathlight School and ties up with the Central Singapore Community Development Council to fund enrichment programmes for disadvantaged children, for which more than 600 Credit Suisse employees are volunteering with.

Credit Suisse Singapore CEO Lito Camacho says the bank's philanthropic committee (made up of senior managers) decides whether a potential cause fits with Credit Suisse's strategic focus of providing life-time educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and long-term impact as well as the organisation's and community's needs. Preference is given to those which its employees can volunteer with.

A recent NVPC survey showed that employers can play a large role in promoting volunteerism. Of the more than 1,800 people polled, 80 per cent of those who have volunteered before said they would do so again if their bosses organised events that required their time. Half of those who have volunteered before would be persuaded to do so through such events.

David Fong, director of NVPC's volunteering portal SG Cares, says it is working with more companies to 'align their corporate employee volunteering programmes with their corporate vision, mission, business plans and core competencies for more sustainable results'.

Of the ones which have worked with SG Cares so far, environmental causes gained most. Some 28 per cent of the companies picked out causes relating to the environment, 24 per cent children and 20 per cent the elderly.

It launched a corporate volunteering programme called MobileCARES last month aimed specifically at helping companies organise team-building events that serve the community and help meet the needs of charities on SG Cares's list at the same time.

Corporate giving in Singapore can be made more strategic, Mr Cheng thinks. Companies should use their resources to tackle the 'hard causes' which can make a fundamental difference, such as advocacy for system changes or capacity building, versus the 'easier heart cases', he says.

The setting up of corporate foundations - such as the CapitaLand Hope Foundation, Singapore Press Holdings Foundation and the Temasek Foundation - may catch on, Mr Cheng says. It helps that the authorities tore down one barrier a couple of years ago - foundations previously could not bear the parent company's name if they wished to enjoy tax benefits.

The more structured giving via a foundation can also help the company smooth out earnings, tax and donations, while making the company's giving more structured and disciplined. Of course, this also means less flexibility to decide to give less in a bad year, he adds.

Mr Cheng notes that corporate foundations here, unlike in the United States, are less well capitalised and do not have a large enough endowment to generate significant annual cash flow but depend on regular injections from the company they are linked to instead.

Another mode of corporate giving which sometimes happens in the US but has yet to surface here is that of successful entrepreneurs transferring part of the IPO receipts or shares into a corporate or personal foundation, says Mr Cheng.

Corporate donations fell 6 per cent in 2009 to $447 million, according to the latest Commissioner of Charities report, but made up 65 per cent of total tax-deductible donations.

Official 2010 figures on corporate giving will be out only next year but should show an increase if companies give as individuals have. NVPC's individual giving survey released last month showed an 11 per cent rise in total donations (including non-tax deductible ones) in 2010 to exceed $1 billion.

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