Should businesses match charitable contributions?

One of our team members recently asked,

What do you think about having our company match charitable contributions?

Here is a slightly edited version of my reply:

Thanks for raising that question. Philosophically, I think the business exists to provide people (both shareholders and employees) with the freedom and means to pursue whatever path they choose for themselves, including the support of organizations they feel merit their investment. But I am uncomfortable with our business supporting non-profits directly (except in cases where there is a direct marketing benefit or business-case to be made for how that support helps further our mission). As such, I would rather our shareholders and employees make donations individually, using the profits they’ve earned from their investments or the money they’ve earned from working here.

Having lent board-level leadership support to non-profits in the past, I have learned more than I wanted to know about how many of them operate. As a result, I’ve become extremely selective about the organizations to which I lend my family’s support. Peter Buffett correctly described the rise of what he calledĀ the Charitable Industrial Complex, and his arguments for scrutinizing the results of personal charitable investments resonate with me.

My opinion is, of course, imperfect and likely wrong. For that reason especially, I think it more appropriate that people make their own decisions about how to support their favored charities. My gut tells me that by amplifying an individual’s charitable donation preferences with other peoples’ money that we 1) inevitably use their money to support organizations that owners wouldn’t otherwise choose to support, and 2) dampen the supporters’ scrutiny of the non-profit’s actions and results.

Milton Friedman said there areĀ four ways to spend money, and my sense is that matching contributions would fall into his fourth (and least efficient) way.