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How Corporate Philanthropies Pivoted with Purpose in 2020

By January 5, 2021

Our CEO, Marc Benioff, said it best when he said crisis brings us to the future faster. As we continue to respond daily to the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, that statement could not be more true. In speaking to nonprofits, educational institutions, and corporations, we’ve heard that the global pandemic has fast tracked plans that were thought to take years to come to life.

It’s not just about product and service roadmaps, either. The way we work, the way we live, the way we connect, and the way we support one another has changed. As much as we’ve learned in the last year, perhaps the most important thing is that in order to reach the next normal, we have to come together as a community.

Individuals, businesses, nonprofits, schools, and philanthropies have begun collaborating in unprecedented ways to support those who need it. We’ve seen competitors collaborate, philanthropy programs embrace unrestricted giving, and businesses pivot their strategies to accelerate support for the nonprofits and schools on the frontlines of the pandemic amid the myriad of social issues compounded by the shut down.

We’ve already seen all of this happening in some inspiring ways.

Turn Competitors Into Collaborators

Gaming is one of the most competitive new industries. Zynga, Activision Blizzard, and Riot Games are all gaming leaders, and often compete for audiences, time, and attention. Since the start of the pandemic, 48% of U.S. consumers have participated in some form of video gaming activity. Unlike other digital activities, like streaming, gaming can be an interactive, social experience.

When the World Health Organization began rolling out its new health guidelines surrounding COVID-19, however, gaming brands saw an opportunity to collaborate.

The #PlayApartTogether initiative tapped into the global gaming community with special in-game features that helped spread the word on physical distancing, hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Video gaming graphic

The #PlayApartTogether initiative was spearheaded by the World Health Organization to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Image courtesy the World Health Organization)

So not only has gaming helped people stay connected during isolation, it’s provided an incredible platform for social change — thanks in large part to competitors-turned-collaborators.

Get Creative with What You’ve Got

Every organization has expertise and assets that are unique to its business. Sweetgreen, a fresh salad quick-service restaurant chain, partnered with World Central Kitchen to use its existing digital and logistics infrastructure to serve high-risk communities.

Sweetgreen’s Outpost program was originally designed to help busy employees order lunch and have it delivered to a convenient grab-and-go location. By using the existing digital infrastructure the company already had, it created the Sweetgreen Impact Outpost Fund. With the help of individual and corporate donors, such as Ford Foundation and Verizon, the company began delivering nutritious meals for free to schools, hospitals, and senior citizen centers.

Its existing digital-first platform made it possible to coordinate ordering, delivery, and pickup while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Sweetgreen pivoted quickly to work with what it already had.

Senior citizen receiving a meal

Sweetgreen and World Central Kitchen partnered to use their existing digital and logistics infrastructure to serve high-risk communities.

Buck Tradition to Focus on Impact

As nonprofits have fought to keep up with the increased demand, it’s caused many to look at long-held grantmaking processes with scrutiny. The process is time intensive and arduous, and the end result is often restricted funding that limits how and where the money can be spent. While these practices were put in place for a reason, they have come at the cost of effective impact at a time when the needs within our communities have intensified.

MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has made headlines recently with her cumulative donations of $6 billion in 2020 — much of it to small charities, underfunded schools, and nonprofits. Most recently, she and a team went through hundreds of emails and phone interviews, as well as thousands of pages of data to land on a group of 384 organizations to receive nearly $4.2 billion in unconditional funds. This move steers away from the traditional model of philanthropies determining the direction of change, to a new one where nonprofits themselves are entrusted to determine where they can have the most impact.

In a recent report, 92% of foundations surveyed had either loosened or eliminated restrictions on existing grants and 80% made new grants as unrestricted as possible. This has relieved some of the pressure on the nonprofit community, but only if these more flexible practices can continue in a post-pandemic world. 

Another impressive example is the Rockefeller Foundation. The Foundation was established over one hundred years ago by oil tycoon, John D. Rockefeller. Despite its roots, however, the organization announced its break from the fossil fuel industry. They are not only dropping existing holdings, but also avoiding new investments in the future. As fossil fuels are no longer vital to the economy, and detrimental to the climate’s future, this is a powerful move toward focusing on the collective good of the global community.

We’re All Problem Solvers with Agency

While the last year has been tough, it’s also highlighted a critical opportunity to take a community-based approach to problem solving. It’s inspiring to see employees from nonprofits and for-profit businesses alike coming together to leverage strategic resources and scale social impact. There is a chance to take the lessons from this crisis and use them to redefine how we deliver open-source impact. If social impact wasn’t a key part of your business strategy last year, it’s a great time to pivot to help us all get through this together.

Read more in our series on corporate social responsibility (CSR) in part one about prioritizing corporate purpose, part two about leading with purpose, and part three about how HR departments are prioritizing CSR.

Learn more about how your organization can be a leader with’s Philanthropy Cloud.

This blog post is the fourth of a series on corporate purpose. Explore the other entries: