Points of Light has released its list of 50 companies that are most civically engaged, the Civic50. The idea is to move beyond hours of voluntary service by employees to consider: 1. other forms of investment (such as cash, or paid time by skilled employees who are assigned to public projects); 2. the integration of a company’s philanthropic efforts with its main business strategies; 3. its policies and incentives for community engagement; and 4. its impact, meaning whether and how the company assesses the effects of its civic engagement on communities.
I was one of many advisers and believe that this is a worthy effort. One question is whether the net impact of these companies is positive. A hypothetical firm might put significant investments into (say) reducing obesity in its community while also massively polluting, or removing investment from a deindustrialized city, or manufacturing harmful products. One response would be to put the positives and the negatives together into a single index. I have come to think it is better to make the “civic” activities a separate category so that we can see which companies are doing that well. We can then weigh their civic engagement along with our judgment of their effects in other domains.
A related question is how to think about policy work. The Civic50 celebrates the fact that Aetna “worked with legislators to help pass a more meaningful mental-health parity law that allows for better coordination of coverage for physical and mental health care services” and that FedEx FedEx “has also played a leadership role in advancing a social issue into which it has keen insight – pedestrian safety.” Here again, I think it’s useful to identify efforts that the firms regard as purely public-spirited so that citizens and consumers can weigh them along with (or against) other lobbying efforts that might be more controversial or downright harmful. One is also entitled to assess the ostensibly public-spirited advocacy efforts critically. Maybe FedEx’s work on pedestrian safety was helpful; maybe it wasn’t.
The main question I would like to add to the assessment of corporate civic engagement is whether a company consults with, and is held accountable by, representatives of the communities that it engages. I welcome the step from counting service hours to measuring impact, but the next step is to share the responsibility for deciding what counts as beneficial means and ends.