Corporate Citizenship During a Geopolitical Crisis (Part 2 of 5): How the Natural Disaster Playbook Can Help

Co-authored with Paul Washington, Executive Director, ESG Center, The Conference Board
Corporate Citizenship During a Geopolitical Crisis (Part 2 of 5): How the Natural Disaster Playbook Can Help

As discussed in Part 1 of this two-part series, when companies respond to a geopolitical crisis, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they need to set aside the natural disaster playbook. But don’t put it too far away. Because that playbook, as well as the one used to respond to social issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, can still be immensely helpful. 

Here are five ways how:

  1. Discuss the impact of providing relief with senior management. One of the biggest challenges that corporate citizenship teams face with natural disasters is pressure to redirect resources from the company’s strategic priorities when a high-profile event occurs—pressure that comes largely from employees and senior management. Moreover, a majority of corporate citizenship executives say they lack resources to fulfill existing commitments in 2022.1 In addition to ensuring that flexibility is built into the corporate citizenship budget to accommodate geopolitical disasters, it’s critical to ensure that management thinks creatively about how to leverage the organization’s broader resources to address its citizenship priorities—including hot spots as they emerge.
  2. Provide your employees with ways to help. Given the pressure on companies from their employees, it’s vital to provide your workforce with outlets to help. The best way to assist during a geopolitical crisis, at least initially, is through financial contributions. Companies may wish to consider establishing an employee relief fund for their employees located in Ukraine. Companies may also want to expand their matching gift program. Over time, virtual volunteering opportunities, an area where companies became proficient during the pandemic, should become available.
  3. Draw on a variety of sources of cash. As with natural disasters, the initial financial assistance during a geopolitical crisis may come from corporate treasury funds. But especially as companies focus on longer-term (and often expensive) recovery efforts, they may want to consider enlisting their foundation, assuming that disaster relief is within its remit.
  4. Don’t go it alone. While companies typically partner with nonprofits and government agencies in natural disaster philanthropy, only 16 percent partner with other companies.2 Especially when dealing with a geopolitical crisis that may have long-term implications, companies should consider how they can collaborate with other firms in the region, in their industry, or in their supply chain. These partnerships can amplify your impact.
  5. Follow your protocols for addressing social and political issues. As we’ve seen in the past two years, companies are facing increased pressure from stakeholders to make public statements on social and political issues. Given the nature and global significance of the Ukraine invasion, the answer as to whether the company should make a public statement may seem obvious. But it’s still helpful to make the decision based on criteria applied to other societal issues. Firms should consult executives from across functions in considering the connection between issue and business, the alignment with company’s core values, internal and external expectations, and the incremental impact the company can have by making a statement. In deciding how to address the crisis, companies have flexibility to choose how prominent a role the firm should assume. It’s important to consider, among other things, the level of resources the company plans to devote, its ability to follow through, and its prior history.3

    Many companies with significant operations in Ukraine and Russia have made initial stand-alone statements, while other firms are making their own internal statements directed at their employees and joining in broader industry statements focused on the public. As the crisis evolves, companies may make future statements, and additional commitments to humanitarian relief. Following the guidelines set forth above can help set a good precedent for future crises and protect the company against backlash from those who will inevitably challenge its approach for doing too little or too much. 

As with a natural disaster, when a geopolitical crisis brings death and hardship, there is a powerful desire to help. While firms need to be mindful of the very real differences between natural disasters and wartime situations, they can still benefit from the lessons in disaster relief in terms of engaging senior management and employees, utilizing a wide range of financial resources, forging partnerships with other firms, and approaching communications with stakeholders in a consistent and thoughtful manner. 

Republished from The Conference Board's website

1 Robert Schwarz, Disaster Philanthropy Practices 2021, The Conference Board, November 22, 2021.

2 Schwarz, Disaster Philanthropy Practices 2021.

3 Paul Washington and Merel Spierings, Choosing Wisely: How Companies Can Make Decisions and a Difference on Social Issues, The Conference Board, June 27, 2021.

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