When a Company Truly Cares

Canadian companies profit when charity is more than just good PR
January 8, 2015 Updated: January 8, 2015

Over the past decade, a growing trend has been quietly revolutionizing corporate culture in Canada.

It is characterized by various buzzwords: corporate social engagement, community investment, creating shared value, etc. Put simply, it is the mysterious magic that happens when companies align their core values and business strategy with engaged and meaningful philanthropy.

Corporate social responsibility expert Peggie Pelosi is a major force behind this trend in Canada. She first stumbled on the idea in 2000 when she was hired to turn sales around for struggling American health and nutrition company USANA.

People are fundamentally hardwired to want to help.
— Peggie Pelosi, founder of ORENDA

In an effort to inspire the company and its employees, Pelosi created a partnership between USANA and the Children’s Hunger Fund, a non-profit that works to find sustainable solutions to hunger in both the developing world and communities in the U.S. Employees were given the opportunity to volunteer or fundraise for the non-profit, and overseas trips to the impacted communities were organized.

The next few years brought staggering results. Not only did company-wide contributions to the charity grow 10-fold, sales increased dramatically resulting in a 3,000 percent increase in USANA’s share value.

“The product was really the same, the people, the marketing, the pricing—none of that had changed. What had changed was the corporate culture,” remembers Pelosi. “We had created a very inspiring workplace.”

The experience was a watershed moment. Pelosi realized that rather than simply writing cheques to charities, if employers could strategically align corporate responsibility with their core values, while engaging their staff in a meaningful cause, it could be enormously profitable. Pelosi soon returned to Canada and founded ORENDA, a corporate social responsibility consultancy firm that teaches employers how to do just that.

“In the 10 years that I’ve been doing this it has really risen to the forefront of priorities for businesses,” says Pelosi. “It’s evolved dramatically.”

In recent years, companies have started to strive to make a deeper, more focused impact on society that aligns with their brand. This is a major corporate philanthropy trend, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), a coalition founded by the late actor/director Paul Newman which holds that societal improvement is an essential measure of business performance.

Employee engagement in charitable acts and non-cash donations of human and material resources are also on the rise, says the CECP.

This shift in strategy is driven by a variety of factors, Pelosi says. Customers are demanding more from companies, and choose businesses that align with their personal values. Millennials entering the work force are highly socially conscious and future-minded, and often choose to work for companies that contribute positively to the world.

Businesses are also eager to make a noticeable impact and leverage their philanthropic efforts. If they do it right, engaging with charities they deeply believe in, they can also avoid the appearance of insincerity and bandwagoning, such as with the proliferation of greenwashing or one-off cause marketing.

Boston Pizza’s Experience

Boston Pizza’s change in strategy last year is a prime example of the shift toward more meaningful philanthropy.

For years the company raised millions for charity, giving large donations to the Heart and Stroke Foundation through their heart-shaped pizza campaigns.

But the message was fundamentally confusing and off-brand. Boston Pizza, largely known for its casual sports bar atmosphere and high-fat menu, was not exactly a health-oriented business model.

That’s when Boston Pizza Foundation executive director Cheryl Treliving (daughter of Dragons’ Den star and Boston Pizza owner Jim Treliving) called up Pelosi looking for help to devise a giving strategy that made sense.

As Pelosi worked with the company, they discovered that the restaurant chain had a long history of business mentorship through its franchises, and role modelling played a major part in its success. When they started researching charities that place emphasis on role modelling, the idea began to click into place.

Last year Boston Pizza Foundation launched its new “Future Prospects” campaign in a re-focused effort to support youth through mentoring in communities nationwide, many where Boston Pizza restaurants are located. They partnered with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kids Help Phone, and other programs that support at-risk youth.

“We started seeing that by standing for a cause versus [donating to] one organization, we could actually have some real impact,” said Treliving. “It’s not just, ‘do we look good by presenting this big cheque,’ but ‘is the money that we’re using actually impacting and making the world a better place.'”

A year after the change more staff have joined the company’s charity efforts and customer feedback is very positive, Treliving says. Their most popular staff incentive prize has become an annual trip to the Dominican Republic to build homes for those in need in partnership with the charity Live Different—even more sought-after than cash or other prizes available to the staff, she notes.

Canadian Tire’s Jumpstart program, which subsidizes sports-related expenses for kids, and technology company Softchoice’s volunteer training and computer donation program are other successful examples of Canadian companies leading the way in meaningful, on-brand philanthropy, says Pelosi.

It’s also a trend that shows no signs of slowing, partly due to human nature but also to its profitability, she adds.

“People are fundamentally hardwired to want to help,” she says.

“When companies make this part of who they are and imbed it in their corporate culture it gives everybody the opportunity to reach out and have that experience that feels very good, of getting out of themselves and making a difference in their own communities. So it’s really, really good for business.”