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Leadership – embracing the surprisingly rewarding gift of giving

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Leadership is often about getting your business above all others and when on this path, it can be difficult to harmonise the capitalist business world with selfless charity – after all, the essence of business is in trading, bartering and exchanging. Take solace, cynics everywhere – the two concepts need not be mutually exclusive. Take a step back from the profit and loss statements – now is the time to invest in charity.

The task need not be selfless. According to Julie White, head of Macquarie Foundation, a healthy business thrives on its healthy ecosystem so philanthropic endeavours and corporate social responsibility are essential at the best – and worst – of times. Leaders who adopt a corporate philanthropic approach can see a healthy return from their generosity.

The Macquarie Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Australian finance giant Macquarie Group, motivates and encourages its staff to give and take.

“Our charter within the organisation is to provide the community interface and the philanthropic interface for the Group as a business and for the staff wherever we operate,” says White.

Choosing the recipients

With over 1000 not-for-profit organisations receiving Macquarie-funded donations, the Foundation houses a diverse portfolio, ranging from Cure Cancer Australia to The Canberra Symphony Orchestra.

But how do they decide which charities are worthy of donation?

White says it is based on the interests and passion of staff more than anything else.

“We’ve always adopted the attitude with our philanthropy that it’s very much around the areas of interest that our staff have and when you have some 15,000 staff, they’re always going to have very diverse areas of interest and passion,” she says.

It is also critical that the charities reflect Macquarie’s corporate values, including a commitment to innovation and staff development, says White.

“We look to organisations that reflect the innovation and the way that Macquarie does its business,” she says. “We also have a very strict requirement that any organisation that we support must be able to demonstrate Macquarie staff involvement in some shape or form.” 

Staff engagement

The core of the Foundation’s philanthropic activity lies with staff.

“It’s a very staff-driven, bottom-up driven model which ensures that our staff are very engaged and connected where they live as well as where they work,” says White. “What we’re trying to do at Macquarie is in fact create a generation of philanthropists … They make an enormous contribution to society in a business-sense but we also want them to be focused as members of the community.”

To encourage staff involvement, Macquarie has implemented a number of strategies. For instance, for every dollar raised through staff donations or fundraising, the Foundation commits to matching it.

“It’s a very powerful way of having staff see the value of giving because they know that Macquarie will effectively double that giving,” says White.

She also notes that staff participation is a “powerful professional and personal development” task for Macquarie staff – a virtuous circle, in some respects, benefiting the not-for-profit sector and, in turn, their corporation.

“Those intellectual skills and capabilities are of immense value to not-for-profit so getting staff out into and environment that they’re not used to reinforces and re-hones those skills.

“Our priority is how we engage our staff, how we keep our staff involved in their communities [and] how we encourage our staff to see beyond their own workplace to see how they can add value in other areas,” says White. 

Helping those less fortunate

But there’s more to charity than unrequited generosity. Corporate philanthropy can benefit business in more tangible ways, says White.

“There’s also a very simple business case for it and that is that no company is going to operate in a community that’s not healthy and vibrant so you need to ensure that the institutions of the community that you’re operating in are able to be responsive to the community activities,” she says.

What’s more, public perception of a brand is crucial in the modern consumer-driven marketplace, with more competition meaning more brands vying for customer loyalty.

“There’s the whole brand reputation, government expectation, public perception of you as a good corporation and, as we’ve all seen over the last ten years, an incredible growth in the whole notion of corporate social responsibility,” lists White.

Not to mention the tax benefits! 

Want to do the same?

So how can businesses hoping to follow suit get started? Over her time in the role, White says she has given advice to a range of corporations looking to set up similar foundations integrated within their business structure. The key, she says, is to do what suits your own individual business circumstances, rather than copying and pasting a philanthropic strategy.

“Each corporate is going to make its own decision because it really does need to fit into its own business and model and their staff engagement model and it’s unique to each organisation,” she says. “What I hope we’ve done is actually show that it is something that is important and that it’s something that we’re certainly very committed to.”

Regardless of whether a business gives a little or a lot, the fact that there is community engagement is the most important aspect of philanthropy.

“People are beginning to looks much more, in a much more sophisticated way, at how the [business] sector operates and what it can be doing in turn to really make a huge difference to people’s lives around the world,” adds White. “We want to be a part of that.”

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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Published on: Tuesday, January 18, 2011

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