Personal View: What is business philanthropy in today’s moment? – Crain’s Cleveland Business


As there are countless examples of human suffering and inequities in our communities, organized resources from business — capital, expertise and leadership — across all sectors are in critical need. However, the practice of business philanthropy, as an external and responsive endeavor, has to change.

In times of crises, the role of business philanthropy is pronounced. Currently we are deeply mired in three compounding crises, that no one sector can address alone:

  • A global health pandemic
  • An economic recession that thrust millions of Americans into unemployment and led to hundreds of thousands of temporary and permanent business closures and a recovery that has been slower for different segments of the population
  • Systemic racial inequities that have spotlighted and exacerbated lived experiences of Black and Brown Americans

Philanthropic responses to some of these crises have shown businesses at their best in scale and speed. Major philanthropy has committed tens of billions of dollars, with record speed, few constraints and significant collaboration, all hallmark behaviors worth continuing. However, the historical deployment of business philanthropy has always been hyper-proficient in providing relief (read: responsive) and insufficient in providing systemic remedies (read: proactive and transformative).

I am an African American woman, a descendent of enslaved people whose freed heirs migrated to the northern Midwest in the late 1920s from a rural, deep Jim Crow South, in hopes of realizing a modicum of wealth inherited from the production of their collective labor and sacrifice — and securing the dreams of a prosperous life for their family. It is important for me to work for a company whose philanthropy makes the best use of its resources to help create access and economic opportunity for everyone to reach their potential.

Here, in Northeast Ohio, home to the world’s first community foundation, world-class medical and educational institutions, and a handful of world-renowned Fortune 500 companies, our core city — a predominately Black city — continues to bear the moniker of the poorest mid-to-large-size city with the highest poverty rate in the country. Further, known COVID-19 cases and deaths are disproportionately in the Black and Brown community. One’s zip code should not be a predictor of socioeconomic status, health outcomes and life expectancy and more needs to be done to solve these persistent problems.

To address these issues, businesses need to look inward at their own values and the role they play “in helping to develop and care for human beings” — the very definition of philanthropy — in the communities they have the privilege and responsibility to serve.

They need to ensure that the primary motivations of their efforts include an understanding of context, and a commitment to pro-action toward achieving long-lasting change.

Citizens is taking a multifaceted, multiyear approach that aligns strongly with its values. Primary components include:

  • Grants and charitable support for immediate and longer-term initiatives aimed at supporting minority-owned small businesses, increasing awareness of racial disparities, and supporting underserved communities through technology, education and digital literacy initiatives.
  • More than $500 million in incremental financing and capital for small businesses, housing and other development in predominately minority communities.
  • An acceleration of our ongoing efforts to increase leadership and workforce diversity while expanding awareness of social equity issues and providing additional opportunities for colleagues to make an impact within our communities.

Main Street small businesses and startups keep our economy moving. An avalanche of small business closures may hollow out lower-income communities, where jobs and income loss has been greater. Philanthropy can expand support for these small business community anchors by direct equity investment, increasing digital access, mentorship and coaching, connecting and networking.

Letson is vice president, Midwest community development market manager and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) officer for Citizens.


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