Turlough Galvin discusses the opportunities for creating a culture of corporate philanthropy in Ireland. 

Giving away money is the easiest thing in the world. Giving it away effectively is altogether more difficult – particularly if you want it to make a real and lasting difference. Ireland is one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of individual charitable giving. However, as soon as we step into the workplace, something changes.

Corporate philanthropy is lamentably underdeveloped in Ireland. Often, Irish companies tend to embrace the catch-all idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’ or CSR. The vague concept of CSR enables companies to position everyday activities like turning off the lights at night and recycling paper as evidence of their social responsibility.

Long-term engagement

Much of what passes for CSR are just common sense everyday activities. Sending a modest once-off cheque to a charity, though laudable, doesn’t represent the long-term engagement that helps charities grow sustainability and make a lasting difference.

Although there is some evidence that corporate Ireland does give to charities, little of this is done in a strategic and effective way.

Philanthropy should not be confused with CSR. CSR is often centred around the axiom: ‘it is in giving that we receive’, except not in the traditional sense. The implication can often be that ‘it is in giving that we receive good media coverage and plaudits’.

CSR donations often form part of a company’s marketing budget, and the return on investment is often measured not in terms of the real benefit to the charity, but in terms of advertising and other kudos for the company.

While there’s nothing wrong with companies taking credit for their social engagement, true corporate philanthropy should expect little or nothing in return.

Targets and results

Philanthropy should be about acting thoughtfully and carefully, with a long-term focus on tangible results. Companies should engage strategically with charities to make a real difference over many years. Companies should not just give their money, but also their people’s time and commercial acumen, to assist the charity in achieving the long-term objectives of the charity – not the company.

It is also vital to measure the ultimate effectiveness of donations to ensure that the right strategies are in place. If you define measurable objectives, you can follow up and see how well things are working. If needs be, you can alter strategies to improve effectiveness.

Laying strong foundations

The Matheson Foundation has deliberately chosen to avoid the common approach of just writing a once-off cheque and walking away. We have two strategic aims: to help Irish children fulfill their potential and to encourage corporate philanthropy in Ireland.

We want to encourage corporate Ireland to adopt a policy of long-term engagement with charities. A good example of how this can work is our partnership with the Centre for Talented Youth in Ireland (CTYI). CTYI works with Dublin City University (DCU) to support high ability children achieve their potential. Too often these students are not catered for within the normal education system.

CTYI helps them by providing university style programmes at weekends and during school holidays. Courses on offer include medicine, app design, novel writing and psychology. We’ve supported CTYI since 2010, with a focus on identifying high ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds and giving them opportunities on CTYI summer programmes. Since then, we’ve helped over 400 students get involved in the CTYI’s Talent Search and its summer programmes. Our hope is that by exposing children to a university environment early in life, it becomes natural for them to progress to third level, even if their friends, family and neighbours might have little history of third level education.

Some of the children who were involved in CTYI at primary school level are now in secondary school. We want to track these students all the way to third-level age, to see if these programmes really do result in increased rates of university attendance.

To that end, we’ve supported a doctoral student at DCU to evaluate the impact of these courses on these students and see how effective these programmes really are at getting these kids into university. It is our intention to then share this knowledge in the hope of a multiplier effect: If we can prove that this programme really works, other Irish companies should be encouraged to support similar programmes. Such programmes might then become widespread across Ireland, creating lasting social benefits long into the future.

Philanthropic culture

Ireland has a long way to go in terms of creating the kind of culture of philanthropy that exists elsewhere. There are 101,000 foundations in the US and over 9,000 in the UK. Strikingly, there are only 26 foundations in Ireland, according to The Ireland Funds, which works to bring best overseas philanthropic practice to Ireland.

Nowadays, the increasingly dominant philosophy of giving in Ireland is the State-led approach. Tax incentives for charitable giving were closed down over the past couple of years. These incentives meant that individuals were empowered to give to charities of their choosing, and the State would forgo a certain amount of tax to enhance the donation.

Such tax incentives are commonplace across the developed world. But the absence of such tax incentives here greatly hampers individual charitable giving and helps centralise decisions over charitable giving with the State – instead of with the people that generated those taxes in the first place.

The US, by contrast, has the idea of philanthropic activity built into its culture. It has a long tradition of families, communities, companies and individuals making extraordinary philanthropic efforts to build charities, hospitals and schools. Ireland could really benefit from the philanthropic expertise of US companies, if they diverted more philanthropic activity here.

Corporate giving

Many leading Irish charities could now be accurately described as semi-state entities, such is their level of government funding. An over-reliance on state funding can create undesirable consequences, as we have seen with the recent scandals surrounding state-funded charities like the CRC.

State funding reduces the independence of charities. For example, if an Irish homeless charity receives most of its funding from the State, will it really speak out fearlessly against state policies? Will it risk biting the hand that feeds it?

If individual philanthropy can be revived, it will undoubtedly encourage philanthropy at the corporate level. More corporate philanthropy can help ensure that charities are independent, efficient and better placed to both assist – and constructively criticise – the State.

Collaboration

Diverse entities can innovate and collaborate to create novel projects. For example, we worked with the RDS, Dublin City Council and the Science Foundation Ireland to launch the annual Festival of Curiosity in 2013. Now in its third year, the festival has proven a great success with family-focused science and technology events turning Dublin into a hub of curiosity and education for over 50,000 people over four days each summer.

This collaborative approach by otherwise unrelated companies is only in its infancy in Ireland, but there is no reason why the model should not be adopted by others.

Initiatives like The Funding Network Ireland, launched last year, have shown that there is a wealth of worthwhile Irish charitable initiatives just waiting for the right backers.

I would encourage Irish business leaders to critically review their CSR programmes and ask: how much of this is truly fully-engaged thought-out philanthropy? Do we need a separate philanthropy programme? Are we really working strategically to make a long-term difference? Are we measuring results? Could we partner with others to create something new? Could our philanthropy be more innovative?

The task of creating a culture of corporate philanthropy in Ireland cannot be outsourced. Only the leaders of corporate Ireland can make it happen.

This article originally appeared in Business & Finance on 18 February 2015.