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Corporate philanthropy is now increasingly strategic, hands-on

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Those who help San Diego businesses decide where to put their philanthropic efforts have seen a shift in recent years. Local companies aren’t just dispensing dollars based on who walks through the door seeking a donation; rather, company executives are compelled to find the biggest bang for their charitable bucks.

“Charitable funding is challenged, and corporate budgets have been slashed,” said Nancy Jamison, executive director for San Diego Grantmakers, a nonprofit membership association with members including the philanthropic arms of AMN Healthcare (NYSE: AHS), Barona Resort & Casino, Callaway Golf (NYSE: ELY), San Diego Chargers, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC), Mission Federal Credit Union, Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM), Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC), among others.

“They have to be strategic with limited grant dollars. We’re seeing more companies trying to measure the impact of their dollars.

“More are picking areas of emphasis, and sticking within those focus areas. If they’re trying to decide between Nonprofit A and Nonprofit B, they’re trying to decide how it fits in their mission. More kids served, more seniors served. They want to know that what they’re doing has a positive impact to the company, its employees and its customers,” Jamison said.

Robyn Sharp, the director of corporate giving for The San Diego Foundation, likewise sees a trend toward judicious philanthropy.

“I definitely see a shift from responsive to strategic grant-making,” Sharp said. “In those cases, the most successful are those that are tied to what a company already does.”

For example, The San Diego Foundation works with Life Technologies (Nasdaq: LIFE) to support life sciences education in Carlsbad, potentially fostering their next work force, and with WD-40 (Nasdaq: WDFC) to fund military causes, in part because its products are used to lubricate military machinery.

“Employers are not just looking to write a check,” Sharp said. “They want to be more selective, and to find a deeper relationship.”

The San Diego Foundation works with about 15 major corporations in San Diego, including CareFusion (NYSE: CFN), Cox Communications and the San Diego Padres, through donor-advised funds and scholarship funds. Smaller companies are encouraged to participate in the foundation’s Civic Leadership Fund.

The local social services sector -- particularly in the area of education -- seems to be benefiting from corporate philanthropy, a trend that aligns with what’s being reported nationally, Sharp said. There also seems to be a local inclination toward more hands-on giving opportunities, such as employee volunteer programs and matching gift programs, she said.

Jamison of the San Diego Grantmakers said it’s worth noting that there are fewer corporate headquarters in San Diego than in some other major metropolitan areas, meaning there are fewer major corporate grants coming out of this region. Still, there are significant corporate work forces here, and so greater opportunities for employee engagement, in-kind donations, and volunteer work.

“Since the recession, I’ve seen a trend toward increased involvement of employees. It feels good for the employees, and the company uses its bandwidth to give back,” Jamison said.

When it comes to corporate giving, San Diego Grantmakers' members are interested in a number of areas, including education, the environment, the military, homelessness and foster youth, according to Jamison. Causes that support the creation of jobs and sustainable family incomes are especially attractive, she said.

Holland America Line, a Seattle-based cruise-line company that ports in San Diego, makes local contributions as part of both the San Diego Foundation and the San Diego Grantmakers. Its San Diego beneficiaries have included the San Diego-Imperial Council of Girl Scouts, Rady Children’s Hospital, the Maritime Museum of San Diego, the San Diego Zoo, as well as the local opera, symphony and the San Diego Performing Arts League.

Holland America Line’s local community relations person, Patricia Sinay, said the company has narrowed its charitable focus to the arts, the environment and health, with a combination of cash donations, auction items, in-kind events aboard the ships, and goods that can be given to those in need. For instance, outdated cruise ship bathrobes were recently donated to domestic violence shelters, she said.

The economic environment has limited the discretionary funding consumers have for luxuries like cruise vacations, so Holland America Line has likewise had to reevaluate where it spends its charitable dollars, Sinay said. “What has changed is we haven’t created new partnerships, but more creative partnerships. It’s not just cash anymore,” she said.

Jamison said it’s the goal of umbrella groups like hers to help corporations navigate philanthropy in changing times.

“Our job is to come in with best practices. People ask, how hard is it to give money away? But it has an art and a science to it.”

-McEntee is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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