First published in the Globe and Mail, November 21, 2003

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Philanthropy is generally defined as "compassion for mankind." In today's world, however, it's easy to interpret the word as simply "to give money."

Most successful companies and individuals can -- and do -- write cheques for charity. Cheques are good. You should keep them in the equation.

But the more profound challenge is to leave your world a better place.

How? Move away from the simplicity of public relations budgets and take a serious look at where to and how to give. Make it personal -- for you, your executives, your staff, your customers and your communities.

Find opportunities that can lead to mutual gain for your community and your company.

For example: Apple Computer donates computers to schools. The action is benevolent, to be sure, but at the same time, introduces future customers to the company's product.

But remember: Public relations campaigns constructed as thinly veiled attempts to promote a corporate brand are simply advertising. The public isn't fooled.

There's no shortage of opportunities to give to your community. But if you expect your employees to get involved, it's important that they work with you to identify community needs that are consistent with company objectives.

Create an employee committee to funnel ideas to the boardroom from the community. After all, they live there and understand it.

Once you and your team have chosen your charities, get involved. For example:

  • Volunteer yourself and ask your most innovative and strategic thinkers to offer their expertise to the board of a community group. They can help identify and clarify its goals and efficiencies. In turn, this may attract other benefactors who think strategically about mutual gains.

  • Give employees paid time off to work on charitable events. Or find a charity that needs physical support (Habitat for Humanity, for example) and have a staff working day, led by you. The cost is negligible when compared to the mutual benefit to the community and your corporation.

  • Establish crisis response teams that can get involved, under the direction of local authorities, in emergencies in the community, from house fires to missing children to natural disasters.

It's not always a corporate effort that makes a difference. A leader's personal acts of kindness can have a profound impact on both a community and a corporation.

If your behaviour shows real concern for other people, you improve your reputation as a trusted leader.

Similarly, personal but anonymous acts can elevate self-esteem, which in turn affects the confidence you display as a leader. These implicitly give value to shareholders, customers, employees and community.

The boss who's interested in doing the right things is distinguished from one who simply does things right.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you respected in your company and community because you're not afraid to demonstrate your concern for others?

  • Do you and your senior staff volunteer for community foundations, community care, or for that matter, community anything? Are you and they on the boards of not-for-profits of choice?

  • Is your support of your community a public relations initiative solely intended to elevate your brand, or is it rooted in a sincere desire to make a difference?

  • Does your corporate philanthropy meld the goals of corporate and community responsibility?

  • Are your employees involved in where your company will give, or is it the sole responsibility of your strategy team? If not, why not?

Corporations can put in place strategies that address the issue of community responsibility while working to enhance shareholder value. Leaders can lead with both their hearts and their heads. But if philanthropy is a way to give purpose to our lives, then to leave the world a better place is a powerful purpose indeed.

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