Where the public sector falls short, private philanthropy through individual or corporate donors has stepped in to give vital support. In areas like community development, education, and humanitarian aid, corporate philanthropy has demonstrated real value in helping stem the major problems of today.
Maybe because it lacks glamor of the arts or the universality of education, or perhaps because it’s such a seemingly insurmountable problem, but homelessness hasn’t historically been the most popular target for large-scale corporate philanthropy. Therefore, it’s been up to cities and states to legislate the issue, with mixed but mostly negative results. The homelessness scourge persists to the detriment of our civil society. In a word, it hurts us all to live in a country that lets so many go without reliable and safe shelter. In a hopeful development, however, some corporate coffers have been opened up in recent months.
To help in the fight, tech giant Cisco Systems announced a $50 million gift to Destination: Home, an anti-homelessness charity in their native Santa Clara County in California. Destination: Home describes it’s mission simply and logically: ending homelessness in their region through creating permanent housing and sustainable support systems for the homeless and the recently housed. The results of this endeavor are of course yet to be seen, but there’s reason to be optimistic about the prospects for corporate charity to fight the problem.
Destination: Home’s plan is the kind of solution that’s worked in other regions, so Cisco’s gift represents a promising step towards real change for those suffering in Santa Clara. With results still pending but reasonably optimistic, it’s worth our time to take a look at the advantages of corporate philanthropy when it comes to ending the homeless problem in NYC and across the nation.
One factor that doesn’t come into play with public funding is competition, namely as a force to streamline and make processes as efficient as possible. Government is essentially a monopoly in the services they provide, with red tape and bureaucracy frequently getting in the way of real change. It’s no secret that business leaders are highly competitive and their philanthropic efforts aren’t immune from that impulse. There’s even a proven link between competitiveness in philanthropy and an improvement in business outcomes, so if the promise of helping others isn’t enough, the opportunity to improve their own bottom line can be a factor as well. It might not match up with earnest messaging about improving the world, but as long as this philanthropy is helping those in desperate need, intent shouldn’t be a negating factor.
Even more so than government programs, which often need to hire out experts or outsource solutions, corporate donors can offer up their expertise or services to create thoughtful responses to the challenge. For example, data firms can contribute their cutting-edge analysis software to help assess the effectiveness of new programs and help cities or nonprofits develop better ones. Corporate giants with a delivery infrastructure can make use of it to distribute materials and aid packages. For those who think creatively to solve business problems, surely those same minds, abetted by their substantial financial resources, can be redirected towards solving public health issues.
As touched on earlier, the self-interest of corporate firms doesn’t have to be opposed to the interest of the public at large when it comes to fighting homelessness. It might seem déclassé to say out loud, but in an age when anti-corporate sentiment is high, a thoughtful approach to fighting a real humanitarian problem like homelessness can be a boon to PR efforts. Whatever their motivations, pragmatically speaking any effort to help this endemic issue should be welcomed, especially here in New York City as our homeless situation worsens even while the city grows richer.
So, can corporate philanthropy truly put an end to homelessness? The jury is still out and likely will be for some time. But from now until this problem is completely eradicated, any well-planned attempt is worth applauding. Sometimes a novel approach is needed to fix a problem, and other times a well-funded one is what gets the job done. When the corporate sphere throws in to help end homelessness, we’re getting both.