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Corporate philanthropy gets strategic

Ever wanted to throw a pie at your boss? At Benchmark Senior Living, fruit-filled revenge can be had — for a modest donation to a good cause.

Instead of simply asking workers to donate money to its charitable One Company Fund, Wellesley-based Benchmark organizes a series of lighthearted events throughout the year, many of which seem to involve employees bidding for the right to knock their superiors down a peg: pie-ing a manager, or making a hotshot vice president repaint the break room.

“We like to celebrate in a way that has an impact,” said Ashley Studley, who runs the fund, which benefits employees in times of personal crisis.


Fun aside, Benchmark’s efforts are emblematic of a sea change that is underway in corporate giving. In the past, a company would typically write checks to nonprofits favored by the CEO, then advertise its good deeds after the fact to employees and customers. Today, that’s not enough. Employees want more authenticity and control, and they expect higher-ups to roll up their sleeves.

“It has to go way beyond writing checks,” said Jamie Jaffee, a managing partner at the Philanthropic Initiative, a unit of the Boston Foundation that helps corporations align their charitable and business goals. “The company has to walk the walk and get personally involved.”

Jaffee advises corporations to switch from scattershot grant-making to a more strategic approach: deciding on a philanthropic mission that meshes with the business, setting deadlines, and involving employees.

When Jaffee pushed executives at Waltham-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. to pick an overarching goal, for example, they settled on promoting science education, a natural fit for the maker of scientific equipment. (Without new scientists, the company would have no customers, after all.)

The 50,000-employee global company lets employees at its many offices steer money and equipment to nearby nonprofits, like public schools that need better lab equipment. It also created a scholarship fund for children of employees who want to pursue a science career.


Besides the karmic rewards, strategic giving like Thermo Fisher’s helps companies improve their culture and cohesiveness, Jaffee said. That, in turn, helps retain productive workers.

“The best and brightest employees are pretty savvy about effective philanthropy,” she said. “If they believe the company is doing something bigger, they’ll be happier and stay longer.”

But does giving really make people happier? Yes, according to Harvard Business School professor Michael Norton.

Norton found that study participants who were given $5 to spend on another person ended up happier than people who were given $5 for themselves. Intrigued, he applied the same principle to corporations, and discovered that when employees received a $50 voucher to donate to a charity of their choice, satisfaction went up. Similarly, when businesses gave some of their customers $50 charity vouchers, they returned to shop again sooner than customers who didn’t get one.

“Maybe your CEO is obsessed with saving manatees, so that’s where the charitable money goes,” Norton said. “No one dislikes manatees, but if the company let you decide, maybe you’d give to research on a medical condition that someone in your family has. Wouldn’t that be much more meaningful?”

Even more meaningful is charity that helps people close to you. At Benchmark, everyone knows a colleague who leaned on the One Company Fund after an illness or a fire.


“We’re not doing it for the glory,” Studley said. “We’re doing it to help our associates.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.