Why consultancies should think carefully when it comes to philanthropy
These days having some kind of charitable giving programme is almost standard for companies large and small. In the tech industry these can range from the very big to the very small and it is the tech entrepreneurs who are leading the way when it comes to their own philanthropic programmes. Napster founder Sean Parker is the latest to announce a £multi-million package of support for a good cause, but there are many who are following where Bill Gates led.
For those of us whose pockets are not quite that deep however finding the right way to give can be difficult. We all have organisations that are close to our hearts and there is nothing like charity to give us that warm and fuzzy feeling but the question is what to give and how.
Often (and understandably) for a consultancy like us, the obvious thing would appear to be time. We all like to think of ourselves as valuable human beings and that the skills we have are valuable too. Using our skills to do good is something that most of us aspire to. The problem is that the practicalities of being a service company often get in the way. Time is easy to give when you have it, but clients will always take priority. If the business is doing well, your bench is usually empty and there is not very much spare time to go round. The reality is that work you are doing pro bono will fall to the bottom of the priority list.
The other issue with giving time away for free is that often we expect the benefactors to be grateful for anything that we give them. In reality, most of them would rather have the money so they get to decide how they spend it. We take pride in the quality of our end product and we cannot expect them (or us) to be happy with something we have thrown together at the end of a busy day.
In my industry philanthropy usually means developer time which tends to mean websites and apps. Websites these days are not a luxury but a vital tool in stakeholder engagement. They may look simple but a good user interface will hide a mass of complex algorithms, analytical tools and a myriad of other bits of kit designed to improve the experience of the visitor, and in the case of most businesses (charities included), encourage them to part with their cash. Allocating a few hours of developer time to throw together a site is simply not going to cut the mustard. At best it might just about provide a nice shop window, at worst it will be actually turning off the very people it is designed to attract.
At Amido we recently made the decision to donate any referral money that we get from our technology partners to a nominated charity. In our case this is the Willow Foundation, an organisation that provides once in a lifetime experiences to seriously and terminally ill adults aged 16 to 40. This serves a dual purpose: firstly, it demonstrates to our clients that we have a commitment to vendor neutrality (something our CTO Simon Evans covers in another post). Secondly, it enables us to have a meaningful philanthropic programme that doesn’t rely on the size of the bench, or on the profitability of the business. This is the most significant, though it’s not the only thing we do; we also match employee donations and we are looking at how we help our consultants use their skills for good in a way that is both sustainable for us and useful for them.
Wanting to give is an admirable trait but I think sometimes the combination of our desire to use our skills to ‘do good’ and the commercial realities of running a business mean that the value of what we give is somewhat less than we might like to think. Using vendor referral schemes as a mechanism to give back will not work for everyone but I would certainly urge consultancies to think carefully about how they give to ensure that they are actually providing something of value as well as ticking the CSR box.