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The business of giving

Photo by Christopher Huang.

Last year, companies in the private sector made more than $2 trillion in profit, but spent less than 1 percent of their earnings on charitable giving, said Curt Weeden, LA’65, one of the nation’s leading experts in corporate social responsibility.

“Corporations are hoarding an enormous amount of money that is just sitting there,” Weeden told more than 100 students in the Raytheon Amphitheater last Friday for the inaugural address in the Northeastern Students4Giving (NS4G) Lecture Series. “They have become incredibly cheap in relationship to corporate philanthropy.”

In 2010, for example, corporations awarded only 5 percent of the $290.89 billion raised by non-profit organizations. As Weeden put it, “When it comes to giving away money, they keep it small or not at all.”

Weeden—the former vice president for Johnson & Johnson, where he managed the corporation’s $300 million contributions program—is on a nationwide book tour in support of “Smart Giving Is Good Business.”

His presentation, which was sponsored by a gift from Johnson & Johnson, addressed the humanitarian contribution of dozens of young philanthropists in NS4G. The student-led initiative is designed to foster leadership and innovation in the nonprofit sector and promote a campus-wide culture of giving through service-learning courses, a student club and partnerships with nonprofit organizations in the Boston neighborhoods of Mission Hill, the Fenway, Roxbury and the South End.

Weeden extolled the virtues of corporate philanthropy, noting that the humanitarian practice “enhances customer satisfaction, which in turn boosts revenue.” But he also explained that many corporate CEOs downplay the notion that charitable giving can solve the country’s job or debt crisis, which he called “the overriding cloud that hangs over business.”

For many corporate leaders, he said, “the business of business is business.”

Weeden challenged the young philanthropists-in-training to act with power, purpose and passion. “Don’t be intimidated by what you’re doing,” he said. “You are as important or more important than people in the private sector.”

He encouraged students to head into meetings with corporate CEOs with well-researched business propositions. “Corporations make decisions on giving based on how the contribution lines up with business goals and objectives,” he said.

“Don’t’ beg,” he added. “Effective fundraising is 90 percent research and 10 percent asking.”

Prior to the lecture, Weeden held a private meeting over coffee with five students in NS4G, including junior international affairs and human services dual major Allyson Goldhagen.

“I love the idea of bridging the gap between non-profit organizations and grant-makers,” said Goldhagen, who also serves as a teaching assistant for the service-learning course Strategic Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management. “Our philanthropy program is empowering because students get practical experience by making grants while making a difference.”