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Use Corporate Philanthropy to Grow Your Top – and Bottom Line

New research shows how philanthropy drives financial results by attracting new customers and keeping existing consumers loyal to your firm.

Your company may see financial return in the form of sales and revenue if it donates strategically to charitable causes.

Charitable donations by companies have grown in value over the past 20 years. In 2007, U.S. firms spent $15.7 billion on philanthropy. Sears Roebuck attributed a sales bump of more than $13 million in recent years to a $50,000 product donation to needy families. Although anecdotes like this seem to suggest that doing good can be good business, questions remain concerning the causal link between corporate philanthropy and firm financial performance.

Researchers Baruch Lev and Christine Petrovits of New York University, and Suresh Radhakrishnan of the University of Texas at Dallasexamined the impact of corporate philanthropy, a form of corporate social responsibility (CSR), on revenue growth for public companies between 1989 and 2000.

Their research builds on previous work investigating the business case for CSR. A key limitation of past research is the inability to establish causality (i.e. that CSR is, in fact, a driver of financial performance). The research team conducted a series of tests to address this issue, examining revenue changes in years following those in which donations were made.

Philanthropy generates revenue in consumer-focused industries.

Lev and colleagues hypothesized that appropriate corporate giving programs help firms attract and retain satisfied customers, leading to higher revenues in future years. Lev and colleagues found that firms donating today indeed do better financially tomorrow — under certain circumstances. In particular, the firms experiencing higher revenues in the years following their contributions were those who operate in consumer-focused industries. For firms in retail and financial services, a $500,000 increase in charitable contributions generated $3 million in sales. In industries characterized by large business or government customers, the same effects were not present.

Why? Donations, which improve the company’s reputation, can attract new consumers or make existing consumers less likely to switch.

Customer satisfaction is the key mediator.

The causal tests performed by the research also examine other possible explanations for the relationship between philanthropy and subsequent increased revenues. But, they found no evidence that factors such as the presence of institutional investors, management quality, industry growth or donations based on expectations of growth diminish the causal link between philanthropy and future revenue growth. Also, the authors find only marginal evidence of a reverse causal relationship, suggesting that prior revenues have a very weak effect on future donations.

How much should you give?

The authors note that the effects of donations on revenue growth were observed at average donation levels; the returns from philanthropy likely plateau or diminish the more a company spends. As a manager, keep this in mind when deciding how much to give.

Philanthropy, then, may be as justifiable as investments like R&D or advertising for firms selling to consumers. What’s next? The authors hope future research will help firms pinpoint the optimal level of giving, measure other possible mediation paths between philanthropy and financial performance (e.g. innovation, labour relations), and support their findings using alternative methods such as natural experiments.

Lev, B., Petrovits, C., and Radhakrishnan, S. 2010. “Is Doing Good Good for You? How Corporate Charitable Contributions Enhance Revenue Growth.Strategic Management Journal. 31: 182-200.

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  • Pam Laughland

    Pam Laughland was Managing Director at the Network for Business Sustainability from 2011 to 2017, and previously was the organization's Knowledge Manager. Prior to joining NBS, Pamela held research positions at the Richard Ivey School of Business, Statistics Canada, and the University of Guelph. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Ivey Business Journal and the International Journal of Biotechnology. She holds an MSc in Resource Economics from the University of Guelph.

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