IN MY OPINION: Institute of Management companion Dame Stephanie Shirley, founder and life president of Xansa, urges a businesslike approach to the corporate call to alms

IN MY OPINION: Institute of Management companion Dame Stephanie Shirley, founder and life president of Xansa, urges a businesslike approach to the corporate call to alms - Philanthropy plays a minor role in the world of business, and some think corporates

by DAME STEPHANIE SHIRLEY
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Philanthropy plays a minor role in the world of business, and some think corporates should concentrate entirely on their shareholders and leave them to do the charitable giving. I disagree. There is enormous need and scope for more philanthropy, not only from success-ful organisations but from the increasing number of the seriously wealthy.

It is encouraging that, since the PerCent Club was launched in 1986 for companies wishing to donate 1% profits to charity, more organisations are taking a long-term, stakeholder view and recognising the business benefits that flow from charitable giving and involvement. However, more needs to be done and more people need to be doing it.

Successful people are, of course, keen to ensure that their donations, whether corporate or private, achieve their objectives. It's only right and proper that charities are professional and effective in what they do; indeed, their tax privileges demand efficient goods and services.

The London Benchmarking Group was formed in 1994 to meet the need for comparative information about how corporates define, fund and manage their philanthropic activities. The template recognises the need to measure contributions and their impact. The greatest difficulty in evaluating and monitoring projects is in measuring inputs and outputs in human activity.

However, statistical vagueness should not be used as an excuse to withhold funds or expertise. The need for charity is greater than ever before. I believe people and organisations should contribute generously, certainly in terms of money and, if possible, in terms of time and expertise. Charities need bright ideas and management just as much as they need cash, and practically every business lesson can be applied to the voluntary sector to add value.

Charities are an outward sign of society's concerns and conscience. They address its deficiencies by concentrating on the gaps left by the waxing and waning of the welfare state. They have a number of distinctive roles: they fund new ways of tackling problems; they target and serve beneficiaries who have trouble accessing or using ordinary services, or who are inadequately served; they identify new or newly discovered needs; and they often undertake seedcorn work to stimulate long-term support from other sources.

And they are becoming more businesslike, making use of IT, for instance, to provide significant efficiency gains and introduce networks for learning and shared services. Charities have also learnt the importance of brand identity and of avoiding the trap of giving what they think people ought to want. Beneficiaries, like customers, are no longer passive recipients - they play a major role in the definition and delivery of benefits.

In order not to patronise beneficiaries, however, it is vital that the passion and the human touch is also present, along with pure compassion in the sense of complete sharing of suffering.

The established vision of the world is as a vicious jungle where only the fit and selfish survive. In my opinion, co-operation is not only an act of altruism but also an act of social efficiency. Yet business still needs convincing of this. Business schools rarely mention pro bono activities; the medical and law schools do. Creative artists and sportspeople also seem to know that they need to encourage trainees, look after their fans and devote some of their energies to charity.

Benefits flow both ways. Young people shadow business leaders as an introduction to the world of work. In the world of philanthropy, business people learn from the uncomfortable messages that people in different spheres of life articulate.

Because there is more diversity in the not-for-profit sector, activities there are greatly stimulating experiences and challenge everyone's thinking.

Focus can present a problem for many donors, but I have learnt to confine myself to what I know best and care about most. So my grant-giving foundation concentrates on IT, which was my chosen profession, and also on learning disability, especially autism, which was my late son's handicap.

I don't, however, like just writing out cheques. The entrepreneur within me still wants to do something new. Hence, in order to make a difference, in order to create something sustainable, my time and wealth go to pioneer projects that would not otherwise happen and that have the potential to make a strategic impact.

I believe that the good life is fulfilment of the person rather than satisfaction of the body. My years in business provide me with confidence that commercial expertise applies equally to the voluntary sector. And it is extremely pleasant to see money working to good effect. That feelgood factor reflects St Jerome: 'When you do good, you feel good.' Speaking personally, I can affirm that the more money I give away, the richer my life seems to become.

Xansa, formerly the FI Group, is one of the original members of the PerCent Club. Dame Stephanie is an Institute of Management Gold Medallist - a yearly accolade bestowed on a member distinguished as having excelled in the practice of management.

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