Corporate philanthropy provides a mechanism to truly transform the business sector, writes Lani Evans, Head of the Vodafone NZ Foundation. She explains why, if we’re brave enough, it can be a tool for internal and external change, for organisational transformation and help to achieve positive social outcomes for Aotearoa.

Corporate philanthropy can be more than the giving itself – it can enable innovation, better ways of working and a clearer commitment to purpose. But letting those lessons in and allowing them to shift our perspective requires a move away from the thoroughly imbedded, paternalistic idea that business knows best.

Vodafone New Zealand has invested more than $43 million in our Foundation over the last 18 years and we’ve done it for all of the usual reasons – it’s what our customers want and our employees expect. It’s the right thing to do. But we’ve also invested because the Foundation gives us a competitive advantage, not through the giving itself, but through the learning the Foundation enables.

Charities have an inherent innovation orientation. Innovation is what gets us to truly transformational social and environmental change. Easy access to cash and resources can make for-profit organisations complacent. They can buy their way out of problems. Charities don’t have that luxury, instead they coalesce around purpose, with passionate people, cross-sector collaboration and an attitude that’s centred on making-do. For-profits might have the money, but they have the motivation.

Charities can push out the boat on ways of working. In 2017, the Vodafone NZ Foundation, launched an Honouring Ti Tiriti Policy, a nerve-wracking (for this Pākehā leader) public commitment to becoming better Treaty partners. In 2020 Vodafone NZ followed suit, creating a radical shift in organisational policy, practice and prioritisation. Vodafone NZ’s commitment has built on and strengthened the work of the Foundation. If you really want to step into the future of work, you should pay attention to the things that charities are prioritising.

Business can also learn from the strategic prioritisation of community organisation. Charities think about money a lot – our hypercompetitive funding environment makes it an imperative. But money is never at the centre of strategy. Charities base their strategy on purpose, not profit. Starting with the vision front and centre creates shared values and an action orientation that drives decision-making, staff engagement and community interaction. It allows us to take a long-term, inter-generational view of success.

Engaging in corporate philanthropy also provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our own behaviour. In 2014, Bill Gates said “The long-term threat of climate change is so serious that the world needs to move much more aggressively – right now – to develop alternative energy sources.” At the time of that speech, The Gates Foundation had more than $1.4 billion invested in the fossil fuels industry. They were shareholders in, and made money from, an industry that creates and exacerbates the healthcare problems their foundation was trying to solve. The Gates Foundation learnt along the way – they divested from fossil fuels in 2016.

If we are looking to use corporate philanthropy to solve problems we must first check our own complicity in their construction. When we’re looking to fix the world, we must also start the journey to fixing ourselves. At Vodafone, we know we operate in a sector that has its own carbon footprint and ethical considerations – and we need to contribute to greater digital inclusion and diversity in digital leadership in order to live into our organisational aspirations. The point is not to be perfect – the point is to set ourselves a vision and commit to continuous improvement.

Vodafone’s instant network. Photo: Supplied

The key question all businesses need to ask is, how much more impact could we have if we choose to act with congruence, to hold the same values in our internal and external behaviours? Because then we can create long-term value – for employees, shareholders and the community.

We can learn a lot from community organisations, but we also need to resource them properly. The consistent under-resourcing of community organisations might result in innovation under pressure, but it also leads to burn out. We collectively need to do better. Part of doing better is valuing the leadership of the community sector and learning from it. Financial contribution is our price of entry.

Social and environmental issues form a crucial part of business risk and opportunity. Actively taking responsibility for those issues is economically and ethically essential. Corporate philanthropy provides us with a mechanism for doing exactly that: giving, receiving and actively working towards a stronger and more equitable Aotearoa.

The business community will only realise its full potential if we lean into strategic charitable giving, and allow the process to improve us. Corporate philanthropy can be just a tagline, or it can be truly transformational. Aotearoa can strive for the latter.

Vodafone is a foundation supporter of This guest column is part of a content partnership.

Lani Evans heads the Vodafone NZ Foundation

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