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Why are we uncomfortable with corporate philanthropy in health?

Corporate philanthropy in health

As a society, we seem particularly ambivalent about the idea of corporations giving money to support health research and advocacy. On the one hand, corporations often have vast financial means at their disposal. So why shouldn’t they be expected to step up and do their share – perhaps a very large share – to help make the world a better place by helping to treat and prevent illness? On the other hand, we often worry about corporate motives. If a corporation hands over a million dollars to some worthy cause, surely, we assume, it’s not doing so out of the goodness of its ‘heart.’

Much of our ambivalence has to do with doubts about corporate motives. Unfortunately, I think we generally have an impoverished picture of what it is that motivates corporations. The standard image is of gluttonous, money-hungry monoliths, ones that let nothing stand in the way of their pursuit of profits. But corporations are surely more complex than that. They are, after all, staffed by real people, with real sympathies and real hopes and dreams. But nonetheless, it is fair to say that most corporations, as entities, are primarily focused on a relatively small cluster of goals related to profits, sales, and expanding market share. And those goals are not always well-aligned with the public good.

It is incredibly difficult to divine the intentions of particular corporations, or the motives behind particular donations. But we can sketch a few familiar patterns of motivation, and the ethical worries accompanying them.

Patterns of motivation

In some cases, corporate philanthropy may be entirely cynical, focused narrowly on growing profits. In the most egregious cases, companies or industry organizations have been accused of being behind what seem superficially to be ‘grass-roots’ patient advocacy groups. In such cases, advocacy groups have been used as a kind of front, pushing for increased public funding that in the long run ends up bolstering private profits. Although ‘smoking guns’ are hard to find, a 2006 study by the New Scientist (Marshall and Aldhous, 2006) found that some patient advocacy groups received very substantial funding from pharmaceutical industry sources,

Do funding sources affect independence?

In other cases, corporate philanthropy may be motivated by something slightly less diabolical, like an interest in polishing a company’s public image. Sometimes that is relatively unproblematic. There is generally nothing wrong with wanting to be seen as a good corporate citizen, though shareholders and employees may have qualms with money being given to a CEO’s pet charity, rather than being spent on keeping the company healthy. In other cases, a donation aimed at buffing a corporation’s image is more worrisome, as is the case when a donation represents an attempt to distract from a company’s previous unethical behaviour. We should be wary of corporate attempts to buy their way into our good graces.

Of course, in the realm of health, even companies with good ethical track records can be subject to criticism if the net social effect of their products are seen as negative. A pizza chain might have a sterling reputation for integrity, but when it tries to donate money to health research, questions will arise about the health impact of all those double-cheese ‘meat lover’ pizzas. When breast cancer awareness group Komen partnered with KFC – purveyor of all manner of fatty, deep-fried foods – the result was criticism and ridicule.

But even where corporate donations are more well-intentioned, and when the corporation in question makes a product that isn’t subject to health-related objections, there can still be reason to worry. For one thing, corporate cash has the potential to have an enormous impact on the decision-making of charities and researchers. Your charity is focused on

What is the impact on the decision-making for charities and researchers?

Beyond cynicism

But the point here is not to foster cynicism. There are times when the interests of well-intentioned corporations line up nicely with the interests of health charities and with society as a whole. Such situations are reason to celebrate. The key, ethically, is for charities and researchers to think critically about the motives and reputations of the corporations they align themselves with, and for corporations to be as transparent as possible about not just what they hope to give, but also what they hope to get.


  1. Marshall J., and Aldhous P. (2006). Patient groups special: Swallowing the best advice? New Scientist. 27 October.


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