Ever buy a hot dog on the street?

Maybe the hot dog vendor grimaced as he passed you the dog. Thoughts you may have had:

  • Was that disgust?
  • Is there rat poison on this hotdog?
  • Is this even real mustard?

These perceptions then became the basis for your interpretation that the hotdog guy? He can’t be trusted. A guy who makes a face at his own hotdogs? There’s no way you’re eating that wiener. That’s sensemaking – when human beings take lived experience and construct meaning around it. And we do it all the time.

Teamwork. Three young architects working on a project

By Kelly Lynch

Employees sensemake a corporation’s intentions or rationale behind donating or grant-making in a similar way. How employees understand a company’s goodwill is based on how dollars are given and on how that donation is communicated, both of which help employees understand the why of the donation. If the hotdog vendor had been better at communicating that his hot dogs were totally fine to eat, if he’d personalized the experience and threw in a “have a great day!” you may have perceived the situation, and his wares, much more positively.

Another important thing to remember is that a corporation’s identity is decided on by its employees through critical mass. If enough people think the same thing, or make sense of giving strategies in the same way, it becomes truth. It becomes reputation. Which is why volunteer and matching programs are just as essential to a company’s giving strategy as corporate donations and grant-making.

A well-run employee volunteer and matching program fits with corporate culture, and provides diverse ways for employees to take part in volunteering and to give back to the causes they love. And it’s a must have.


Employees are your number one stakeholder.

When it comes to corporate identity and reputation, employees play a dual role. They are invested in the company and in their communities. If you give them a meaningful way to connect with and give back to the community through the company, you are creating the best face for your organization and your people are doing good. You’re also giving employees a way to take part in the giving process, helping them see firsthand how the company is investing in communities.

Corporate giving and public perception

Reputation also plays an important role in how employees engage with the business and take pride in what they do. Public perception (which you can think of as public sensemaking) of an organization shapes an employee’s work identity and how they perceive value in what they do and the services/products their company provides. If an employee can see internally that their company supports them, through giving programs and otherwise, they will bring that experience back to their communities. And more and more corporate giving is becoming an unquestionably important part of public perception. However, building goodwill can be especially difficult for corporations.

Why is it so tough?

If ever corporations were between the proverbial rock and a hard place, it surely must be now. Contemporary organizations must operate within a globalized economy that is not only characterized by rapidly changing technology and fierce competition but also plagued by turbulent financial markets, decreasing consumer spending, and plummeting public trust. Despite or perhaps because of these challenges, today’s companies are increasingly expected to be “good corporate citizens” and to “behave with a corporate conscience” (Mize-Smith, 2010, p. 369).

Corporations are often better known for making money than giving it, and when they do give back, they don’t talk about it in the right way. Often, giving isn’t celebrated in creative ways; talking only about dollar amounts doesn’t tell anybody anything about the impact those dollars have made. If the public sees a gap between how a business says it cares about its customers and communities and how it acts upon those statements, then you’re doing it wrong.

Corporate giving plays a huge part in building customer loyalty by giving back to those customers and their communities. It shows that the relationship is not transactional.

There’s such great wisdom in the saying, “to whom much is given, much is expected.” A corporation’s customers give significant dollars to that organization. But, what’s more important than the customer paying for a service or product is their loyalty. Loyalty is so much more valuable than dollars in exchange for service because it means longevity. People will keep paying for services and products and – gasp! – may actually come to trust an organization if their loyalty is gained and kept. Corporate giving plays a huge part in building customer loyalty by giving back to those customers and their communities. It shows that the relationship is not transactional. And this brings us back to employees again, because if they’re given the right tools and support, they help foster that loyalty from the ground up.

If employees see their organization seeking out what their community needs and actually providing it, they might sensemake like so:

Hey, the place I work is doing stuff in the community – good stuff. Community seems to play a big part in how my organization does business, and that makes me feel pretty good. It makes me want to participate in my community more. I can do community work with the support of my employer, and that makes me think my employer cares about me, too. I think I like where I work, and I’m gonna let other people know it!

Give your employees what they need to help, support them generously, and they’ll bring the goodwill they foster back to the organization tenfold.

Building reputation through corporate giving

The big question we’re left with is: how does a corporation build reputation through their giving activities? The answer is that there’s no secret formula – every business is different and, based on the services/products that business offers, its employees, customers, and communities will perceive or sensemake differently. But a few key things corporations should consider are:

  • Make community giving a standard, ingrained part of business strategy. Let it permeate corporate culture and it’ll do some of the work for you.
  • Involve your employees. Help them give back to the causes they love. Help them interact with and give back to the community through the company.
  • Find out what your employees, customers, and communities need, and what their expectations are when it comes to giving. Let this inform your strategy.
  • Talk to your communities. Respond to your communities. Talk to your employees about your communities. Communication should be consistent, constant, and should have input from all parties where possible.
  • Talk about impact. Tell everybody. Dollars are great, but impact is even better.
  • Ask yourself: Is your giving long term? Will the impact last? How is it helping people?
  • Align your grant making and employee giving strategies. The two can complement one another beautifully and will make for a robust overall corporate giving structure.
  • Always remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

If you’d like our help with your employee volunteering or workplace giving program, please feel free to drop us a line at contact@realizedworth.com, leave a comment below, or call us at 855-926-4678. You can also reach out to us on Twitter and Facebook.

Kelly Lynch
Consultant, Project Manager
Realized Worth


Mize Smith, J. (2012). All good works are not created equal: Employee sensemaking of corporate philanthropy. Southern Communication Journal(77)5. p. 369-388.

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