PhilanthroCapitalism: Corporate Trends and Jewish Philanthropy in the 21st Century

The term for what happens when business practices intersect with philanthropic goals goes by many names; Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), corporate citizenship, sustainability and social enterprise, to name a few.

But terminology is secondary to how these trends have an impact on Jewish social justice values (e.g. tikkun olam). The importance of exploring philanthropy through a business lens is the guiding force for a three-part webinar series on corporate trends from JFN.

On Sept. 29, JFN hosted a conversation with Aron Cramer, CEO and President of Business for Social Responsibility, a preeminent authority on corporate responsibility and sustainability strategy by businesses, NGOs, and the public sector. A nonprofit organization that works with larger corporations, BSR helps businesses promote social change in the environment, human rights, economic development, and governance and accountability through consulting, research, and collaborative efforts.

According to Cramer, philanthropists should play a catalytic role in promoting a just and sustainable world, through business as well as traditional philanthropy.  He also made clear that corporate philanthropy is useful, but should not be confused with responsible business. BSR operates on the principle that it’s how you earn your money that matters, not what you do with it after you earn it.

“For those who are looking to catalyze social, economic and environmental progress, catalytic philanthropy for CSR can be a very useful tool,” Cramer said. “First is that this can achieve change in the way business is done. Second, support for CSR/social enterprises is likely to have longer-lasting impact, since it can create models that are sustainable, rather than models that will rely on philanthropic support forever.”

Cramer said foundations can provide seed funding to challenge norms and demonstrate what is possible within business, to influence and effect change on human rights, economic inequality and climate change. “There are things that won’t be started if we wait for business to be ready.”

Skepticism surrounding CSR is not uncommon, especially where philanthropic efforts do not address questions related to the core of business. For example, Cramer questioned the value of the NFL’s campaign every October to help fight breast cancer at the same time it fumbled its response to allegations of domestic abuse by players. In other words, merely giving your money or clout to a cause isn’t enough.

In contrast, Cramer highlighted a recent U.N. summit where corporate executives addressed the responsibility of business to actively seek solutions to climate change. He said there is a greater willingness to talk about the creation of new business models that blend profit with a core social mission, one that is often informed by Jewish values.

Indeed, tackling such issues as climate change, economic inclusivity and human rights has long been rooted in the Jewish tradition of social activism and tikkun olam, according to Cramer.

 “As I look around at the corporate social responsibility community it’s interesting to see how many of the early leaders and ongoing leaders have come out of the Jewish community,” Cramer said. “If you think about some of the pioneers in this movement … their beliefs, experiences, and ways of seeing the world suggest that business has a role to play besides just making a profit.”

Shari Edelstein is a philanthropy consultant based in Boulder, Colo.