Punctuated Generosity: How Mega-events and Natural Disasters Affect Corporate Philanthropy in US Communities

by András Tilcsik & Christopher Marquis

Overview — Even in a global age, local communities offer a critical context for organizational behavior. This paper asks: Since corporate giving is often locally focused, what happens to local firms' philanthropy when a major event disrupts the life of the community? Mega-events might be actively solicited (such as the Olympics, the Super Bowl, political conventions), or natural (floods and hurricanes). In particular, the authors studied how major events within communities affected the philanthropic contributions of locally headquartered corporations in the US between 1980 and 2006. There are three main findings: 1) Actively solicited mega-events had a positive effect in the event year, but also displayed more complex time-dependent dynamics. In some cases, the effects on corporate philanthropy were visible two years before the event and lasted up to six years, before eventually tapering off. 2) The impact of destructive, unexpected events depended on their magnitude. While major natural disasters depressed philanthropic spending by local corporations, smaller-scale disasters stimulated it. 3) Organizational and community factors moderated some of the effects of events. Overall, findings demonstrate the theoretical importance of looking at geography and events in tandem. Mega-events shape institutional processes in significant ways. This paper is forthcoming in Administrative Science Quarterly. Key concepts include:

  • This paper develops an institutional perspective to unpack how and why major events within communities affect or disrupt organizations in the context of corporate philanthropy.
  • It is necessary to look at geography and events together in order to understand the full scope of organizational dynamics.
  • Mega-events and disasters can potentially draw increased attention to local needs and identity and give rise to new expectations in a community, leading to an increase in corporate donations.

Author Abstract

This article focuses on geographic communities as fields in which human-made and natural events occasionally disrupt the lives of organizations. We develop an institutional perspective to unpack how and why major events within communities affect organizations in the context of corporate philanthropy. To test this framework, we examine how different types of mega-events (the Olympics, the Super Bowl, political conventions) and natural disasters (such as floods and hurricanes) affected the philanthropic spending of locally headquartered Fortune 1000 firms between 1980 and 2006. Results show that philanthropic spending fluctuated dramatically as mega-events generally led to a punctuated increase in otherwise relatively stable patterns of giving by local corporations. The impact of natural disasters depended on the severity of damage: while major disasters had a negative effect, smaller-scale disasters had a positive impact. Firms' philanthropic history and communities' intercorporate network cohesion moderated some of these effects. This study extends the institutional and community literatures by illuminating the geographic distribution of punctuating events as a central mechanism for community influences on organizations, shedding new light on the temporal dynamics of both endogenous and exogenous punctuating events and providing a more nuanced understanding of corporate-community relations.

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