Christmas, faith and Corporate Social Responsibility … no, your eyes are not playing tricks on you. That’s what I intended to write. Christmas, faith and Corporate Social Responsibility. They have A LOT in common.

And since it is the Christmas holidays, I thought this would be a great time to remind us about an important bit of history that all CSR professionals share.

It all started a long time ago

Well, not THAT long ago. We can fast forward past the part about the manger, the baby and the angels to the 19th century. It is 1835 and Alexis de Tocqueville publishes Democracy in America. Among his many enduring observations is the uniquely American phenomenon of forming “associations” of many different types. These voluntary organizations are the natural output of a society where freedom to associate had been guaranteed in the Constitution, First Amendment.  They fill many needs in society, from religious to political to business to social. As Tocqueville put it so well:

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite … Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.

And it is from many of these associations – local, grassroots, voluntary – that corporate social responsibility will be born.

Faith and philanthropy … and the United Way

The United Way is one of the most recognized brands in America. Raising over $4 billion annually, and now a world-wide organization, United Way is known for partnering with thousands of companies across communities everywhere to raise money for those in need. Leveraging an annual workplace campaign, United Way fundraising drives usually kick-off after Labor Day and wrap up right around Christmas.

But what is less well-known about United Way is its humble beginnings … a genesis rooted in faith.

It is 1887 in Denver, Colorado, church leaders – people of faith – get together to raise money for 22 local charities serving the needs of the poor. They organize in order to focus people’s attention in a way that individual charities asking donors one by one could not. And they involve business leaders. Even more important than raising money, an idea is born and an organization founded. That fundraising organization would later evolve into the first United Way, and it would help inspire the establishment of Community Chest organizations across the country in the early 20th century, which would come together to form the United Way that we know today.

Something often overlooked is the fact that in community after community after community, at the center of so much of this philanthropy were faith-based organizations. Led by missionary goals to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, and care for the sick, the orphaned and the elderly, we find faith-based organizations joining the effort again and again: Catholic Charities, Jewish Federations, Lutheran Social Services, The Salvation Army, and many others. Church leaders lead, and faith-based charities join the call.

From philanthropy to CSR

The history of philanthropy in the U.S. is a terrific study, full of sociological trends (e.g. the rise and role of associations), influential leaders (Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller), and so many inspiring causes. What is uniquely American about philanthropy and social responsibility, however, is the rise of corporate social responsibility. The genius of United Way was to harness the marketing capacity of companies (and their payroll systems!) everywhere to engage in charitable giving. United Way campaigns are the original corporate philanthropy or workplace giving program, sponsored by an organization dating back more than 100 years.

Then, in the 1960s, we add the terms “Corporate Social Responsibility” (or “CSR”) to our philanthropy lexicon, as business writers became interested in the subject and coin the appropriately descriptive phrase. But while the term is new, the practice was well-established. Voila! (minor tribute to Tocqueville being French)

Christmas, faith and Corporate Social Responsibility

Bringing it home …

It is the Christmas season. And Christmas is the season of giving … as the stats remind us. Not only are United Way campaigns wrapping up, but 30%+ of all giving will occur in December, and as much as 12% in the last three days of the year.

When we think of giving this Christmas, let us not forget that a lot of giving is the result of corporate giving programs. Furthermore, let’s remember that corporate philanthropy owes its genesis to United Way, and United Way, in turn, was born from the efforts of church leaders in Denver more than 100 years ago. And finally, it was United Way who brought philanthropy as a movement to the doorsteps of companies in every community in America … resulting in Corporate Social Responsibility.

There you have it. Christmas, faith and Corporate Social Responsibility. They really do have a lot in common.

And let me say to each of you reading this post, “Thank you” … “Be as generous as you can” … and above all else, “Merry Christmas!”