Corporate Philanthropy: The role of United Ways as Enablers of Cross-Sectoral Efforts to Achieve Greater Social Impact

8 min readApr 12, 2018


April 11, 2018

There is no question that corporations are rethinking what it means to support social purpose work. For some, writing a cheque to support their cause of choice remains the favoured modus operandi. For others, their philanthropy is much more strategic and tied to specific brands; think Dove Real Beauty campaign for one. Others still are seeking a focus on employee engagement or are taking the lead on social issues, like TD’s “The Ready Commitment” and RBC’s Future Launch — both backed by high profile media campaigns.

So what trends are impacting corporate philanthropy and what does that mean for those engaged in social purpose work?

Photo by the Author. April 10, 2018 — the Economic Club of Canada

This question was explored at the Economic Club of Canada event entitled: Global and Canadian Perspectives on the Future of Corporate Philanthropy featuring the leadership staff of the United Way movement in Toronto, Canada and globally and was moderated by the Economic Club President, Rhiannon Traill.

According to Brian Gallagher of United Way Worldwide (UWW) there are many trends to be aware of: globalization; migration; demographic shifts; digital tech; disintermediation; and the rise of the focus on the individual. The one that Brian believes is impacting society most profoundly is the transition from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based one. This new economy, Brian asserts, is driven by technology, is less geographically focused and leads to greater income inequality exacerbated by the pace of change that is requiring us to re-write our social contracts. It is also requiring us to re-think our roles as organizations and how the focus is less on those roles and more on the need to tackle the big issues of our time.

Brian also advised us to learn from the US and the challenges experienced from the “carving out of the middle of society in economic, political and cultural ways”. Noting that all successful communities have a thriving middle, Brian urged a shift in leadership to help us break out of our inertia and ensure our workers are re-trained and re-educated in a manner that reflects this economic transformation. Interestingly the federal Liberals focused on this in their platform for change entitled a new plan for a strong middle class.

Jacline Nyman of United Way Canada (UWC) echoed the point about disintermediation and the ease she personally experienced in participating in global causes like the Women’s March. Not only did she participate but she was able to engage others, not through any traditional intermediary but through Facebook. This personalization of participation in causes is manifested in workplaces as corporates are attempting to provide opportunities for individual employees to support their own projects.

Currently there are many new and emerging platforms to enable this from Benevity to the recently announced SalesForce/ United Way collaboration Philanthropy Cloud.

Daniele Zanotti of United Way Greater Toronto (UWGT) noted the need to go beyond fundraising or social service provision to “building civic muscle”. He gave examples of how they are now co-creating neighbourhood programs with corporations like BMO, and working with labour, public and private sector partners on the implementation of Community Benefit Agreements around the Eglinton Crosstown extension. He spoke of their efforts to implement the Youth Success Strategy done in partnership with CIBC and Accenture that expanded the program from internships to actual jobs. This approach not only provided social good but it met the business needs experienced by the companies for new talent.

This is a key area of focus worth exploring more fully: the fact that it is possible to not only “do good” but to achieve business objectives while doing so. This approach is often more sustainable than traditional philanthropy as it keeps corporates engaged from the C-suite on down and is less likely to be seen as a distraction.

In building a pro bono ecosystem in Canada, we have focused on the movement from transactional to transformational relationships. United Way agrees that the time of transactional relationships are over. It is now about “customized approaches that are being built to move the needle on social issues”.

Daniele offered a few more examples where corporations had stepped up to work with United Way to meet the needs identified by community agencies, such as the mentoring support for women-led social enterprises from EY that pivoted from a simple 2-day pro bono exercise to a longer-term engagement. From engagement of RBC employees to use their skills to help kids code. And from the TD Give to Grow program that brought the best business minds together to work on complex yet local issues over extended periods of time. These corporations all realized that the “win” means meeting the needs of community; the interest of employees; and ideally the corporate objectives. They also realize that working with complex social issues is messy work that takes a long time and that a one-off commitment won’t really make an impact.

While the United Way is clear that business needs to focus on the bottom line and build brand, Jacline asserted that corporates realize that “the brand can be easily disrupted by anyone, anywhere, anytime”. And while the focus was clearly on employees and the ability of the United Way to connect them to causes around the globe, Jacline also mentioned the importance of working with customers and shareholders in connection to that brand identity.

Coincidentally PwC released their Canadian Corporate CEO report on the same day wherein they encourage corporate CEO’s to focus not only on building trust among their employees but “with the broader stakeholder group”. PwC believes that this is currently a missed opportunity.

PwC also recommends that corporations “have (their) organization commit to a purpose and values. Think about more than just financial metrics. Also, the benefit that your organization is taking to make society even better. Data tell us that Europe and other places in the world are farther ahead with respect to that.” While some of us in the social purpose sector have been leading this charge, having this solid advice come from one of “their own” is deeply important.

There are certain global trends in philanthropy (for the latest on Canadian trends, please see the Rideau Hall Foundation and Imagine Canada infographic below). Generally while charitable dollars are increasing the number of donors and the number of volunteers is decreasing. And while the United Way has many high net worth (HNW) donors — and there is certainly a trend to these donors doing their own due diligence and making decision without the help of an intermediary — United Way asserts that part of their job is to “democratize philanthropy” ensuring that the intelligence that is provided to those who can afford investment advice is available to all donors.

Read more on this in the Imagine Canada special edition of Imagine Matter, April 10, 2018 on “30 years of giving in Canada” in partnership with the Rideau Hall Foundation.

Jacline spoke about the need to get beyond “hitting the Like button” and feeling generous but rather the importance of using big data and AI to help people see and access information from legitimate sources. While we all have unprecedented access to data, what we are lacking is filtering, analysis and sense making about that information at scale, and in a way that works for us.

Daniele spoke about community-centred approaches which he describes as working with (not for, to or on) community. He believes that people really care, they just need a way to put that care into action. By way of example, United Way Greater Toronto is calling for “an uprising of care” to engage 1 million people by 2025. Eight (8) months in they are at 250,000 people and the website just launched to show how this is possible.

Do United Ways see themselves as neutral conveners, able to bring together cross-sectoral collaborators to redefine, before we even attempt to solve, our complex challenges?

They believe they have always been a way for community to deal with issues you can only address collectively. The best United Ways do not see themselves as institutions but rather “a resource to communities”.

They also believe that the United Way is uniquely able to provide a “treehouse perspective on neighbourhoods that implies intentional decisions about who and how we should fund”. This should be based on factors like changing demographics and their job must be to take on “the courageous role to recalibrate funding” that will result in more jobs; access to education; and healthy communities.

While they agreed on the value of cross-sectoral collaboration they also expressed concern about the challenges they face in doing this, particularly as it relates to the need for evidence, evaluation and creating the space for social R&D. While the sector understands the value of this, they struggle to get it funded while dealing with a donor mindset that is focused on the percentage of budgets spent on “overhead”.

When asked about how member agencies can break out of the noise of others who are doing similar work to secure corporate funding, the agencies were advised to move from being competitive to collaborative. They were encouraged to focus on an issue and work together towards those bigger solutions while forming partnerships to address immediate needs.

United Ways may be ideally positioned to build on the work done to date and play a unique role in brokering critical partnerships that utilize the skills of all involved. From placing the needs of the community member at the centre; to engaging community agencies doing the work on the ground; to the using the skills and finances of corporates — this is the recipe for success and it requires a fundamental rethinking of what platforms can enable this change.

From the perspective of the United Way, 21st C corporate philanthropy requires corporations:

· To work to create both economic and social mobility

· To honour those with lived experience of poverty and their need for hope and way out through education and employment

· To understand and harness the power of AI for good to create better connections both online and off

· And to appreciate that in order to be sustainable any solution must focus on community. That connected communities are healthy and wealthy communities and that we must make it easy for people to care and act on that caring.

Other factors for corporations to consider include:

· Becoming more strategic in what the corporation chooses to support

· Ensuring corporate efforts are rooted in the needs of community while ideally meeting corporate objectives

· Valuing the role of the intermediary or broker who can make the critical connections across sectors

· Determining how best to use the full assets of the corporation, from talent, to financial resources to in-kind programs and services including use of space

· Being prepared to lead, when needed and more importantly, to be prepared to follow … we all have lots to learn from each other on this journey to create greater social impact.




CEO Enactus Canada. Past: VP, Impact MaRS. Lecturer MBET, U Waterloo. Thinker in Residence, Australia. Social entrepreneurship, Business for Purpose (B4PN)