A Branding Wizard Wants to Close the Philanthropic Divide

06/11/2015 05:29 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2016

Simone Esposito was frustrated. Over the length of his career Simone had worked with some of the most iconic American and British blue chip lifestyle brands and a question had begun to nag at him; why do American corporations give so freely to philanthropic endeavors while their British counterparts seem consistently recalcitrant? He set out to find the answers. Esposito, a b2b developer, globally respected for his keen branding and business development expertise in the often opaque worlds of high-end luxury and fashion was uniquely qualified to tackle the question. Among many talents, Esposito is widely regarded for his preternaturally uncanny ability to identify nascent trends before they become global phenomena. To synthesize corporate strategy and human behavior. What he discovered were longstanding, deeply entrenched and divergent cultural expectations.

In the United States philanthropy is approximately 2% of GDP, while in the United Kingdom the rate of giving is about half, at 1.1% of GDP. Traditionally, the chasm between American and British philanthropy has been explained by the dissimilar roles the respective governments play with regard to social welfare. Many government social services in the United Kingdom are performed by non-governmental actors in the United States, particularly churches, which also accounts for the disproportionately high percentage of contributions to America's various religious institutions. Further encouraging philanthropic behavior, the U.S. tax code is structured more heavily than its British counterpart to incentivize charitable contributions. As evidence of the impact of American tax law, charitable giving trends upward in direct proportion tax increases. While this structural argument is compelling, Simone realized, it's also wildly incomplete.

British platitudinal protestations fail to take into account the grand tradition of philanthropy woven into the psychic and institutional fabric of United States. The deeply embedded ethos of charity precedes the founding of the country. As early as 1633, prominent New Englander, John Eliot, sent a letter to the recently formed board of the Massachusetts Bay Company requesting they establish a 'schoole of larning'. Shortly thereafter, largely in response to Eliot's request, the Massachusetts Bay Colony broke ground on a college in nearby Cambridge. Two years later, a wealthy local minister who had immigrated to the colonies from England, bequeathed, upon his death, half his estate to the new college. The minister's name was John Harvard.

Harvard had a deep appreciation for learning blended with an abiding affection for his adopted homeland. He believed that an educated and literate populace would serve well the young American colonies and viewed philanthropy as communion with God. Harvard's endowment represented the convergence of private wealth, governance and philanthropy, sanctified by God and institutionalized for the first time, thus etching the impulse towards charity into the foundational bedrock of the country. Charity requiring no greater justification than its inherent good and the hope of betterment for all.

By the early 20th Century the notion of corporate social responsibility has coalesced and formalized. The country's sense of identity was already steeped in the history, mythos and apocrypha of great self-made men distributing their largess to those in need. Industrialists and robber barons from Edison to Ford to JP Morgan, seeking prestige, legitimacy and a desire that their legacies as titans be matched by their reputations as conscientious and generous benefactors to the country that had bestowed upon them great wealth, created the first foundations whose sole mandate was identifying and funding worthwhile causes.

As those turn of the century CEO's demonstrated, corporate philanthropy is, in many ways, a personal act. Where and how charitable donations are disbursed is often at the discretion of the chief executive. In many ways, it defines a CEO's stewardship while enhanced stature his or her organization's stature. In the United States, personal and corporate philanthropy are public and celebrated. Thus, once institutionalized a corporation's sense of social responsibility becomes permanently ensconced, handed down to succeeding leadership generations..

Although British philanthropy began much earlier than in the Americas, charitable giving has fallen prey, in a sense, to English cultural reticence. Discussions of money and wealth were long deemed impolitic and unsuitable in polite conversation. Soliciting for donations was often perceived as unseemly beggarism. Even today, philanthropy is considered a discreet and private act. That notion of privacy is defeating by comparison to its publicly celebrated, encouraging, antipode in the United States. And then, of course, there's that old chestnut about its lack of necessity because the British social net is vastly more effective, which misses the point entirely.

As Simone--who has spent his career surrounding by brilliantly creative people in the world's great cities, London, New York, Paris, Milan, Rome--understands, philanthropy, like art and architecture, enriches a culture. Philanthropy encourages aspiration, ambition and vitality. Philanthropy is as an essential element of a civilization's enduring legacy. This is equally true for corporations. The stakeholders in any company, the employees, shareholders and customers derive an innate sense of satisfaction, as well as an abiding sense of loyalty from the knowledge that a corporation, a brand, with whom they have a relationship is a good and generous global citizen. That its enduring legacy isn't simply one of balance sheets but of something larger and universally--essentially, human.

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