Research at the John Lewis Partnership by academics at Northumbria and Durham Universities has shown that involving employees in decision-making about philanthropic projects can bring benefits and challenges. The retailer is well known for its excellent treatment of its employee-partners, but less well known for its extensive employee-run philanthropy. In the stores involved in the study projects included removing Japanese knotweed from bird habitats, helping set up a charity shop, running a fashion show for children with special needs and many others. Employee-partners individually nominate such projects and then decide collectively which to support. On top of this, the company pays selected employee-partners to work for voluntary groups for up to six months.

The study made a number of novel findings. First, employee-partners disapproved of giving customers the final decision over which causes to support. Whilst retailers often give customers tokens to vote for good causes, the employee-partners overwhelmingly believed that they should decide. Secondly, there were vigorous debates about whether philanthropy should be visible at all. Whilst some employee-partners argued that gaining publicity would undermine their philanthropic purpose others were worried that customers might think badly of the Partnership because they did not know of the work that they do.

This research suggests three challenges for your business. Challenge One is to empower your workers to take decisions about which good causes to support; this is about trust and sends a strong message about your business’s values and relationships. Challenge Two is to think about whether to publicise your philanthropic work at all – because whilst this might demonstrate its true purpose, it might also sacrifice reputation. It follows that Challenge Three is to find a way of involving both employees and customers in your businesses’ philanthropic work.

Note: The full paper is at the Journal of Business Ethics website: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10551-019-04188-7

Ron Beadle, Professor of Organization and Business Ethics at Northumbria University, is a Director of NIBE