Diary of an Intern: My Summer in Corporate Giving

It's amazing to say it, but last week I finished up my corporate philanthropy internship at ABC. The summer just flew by! In all, it was a really terrific experience that challenged me to think creatively and strategically about how to educate employees about our corporate giving program and how they can get involved. More than that, it was an opportunity to brainstorm and devise an action plan for how the organization can use philanthropy as a strategic advantage in business. I've given a pretty good overview of my internship in other posts on The Changebase (Learning How to Communicate Change, for example, or one of my Recap posts), so I won't spend too much time talking about my projects. In general, I split my time between two main areas:

  • Communications: this summer was all about the "Socialization of Corporate Giving" at ABC - which basically meant coming up with ways to educate our employees and leadership team about our program, how they could get involved, and perhaps most importantly, why it's good for our business. Within communications I focused on creating educational campaigns to let employees know about their option to donate product to charity; redesigning and expanding our program's presence on the company intranet; building out a more robust employee volunteer choice system (letting employees nominate nonprofits to work with beyond our network of partner organizations); and generally raising awareness and involving employees in the conversation. Here I am (below) at a Corporate Giving "expo" I set up to talk to employees, showcase our newly redesigned intranet pages, and encourage participation in the program.

Corporate Giving Event Aug 3 001[1]

  • Branding: I ended my summer by building the case for branding. As a short summary, right now the corporate giving program at ABC is called "Corporate Giving". Without a name or a visual identity, the program doesn't stand out and get noticed by internal employees. Not to mention the fact that currently ABC does not really communicate at all with external stakeholders about how it gives back. All in all, calling it Corporate Giving is impersonal and doesn't convey any of the heart or meaning behind why ABC is involved in the community. My report included competitive benchmarking (looking at how Land o'Lakes, Del Monte Foods, and V8 Juice externally market their community programs), making the case for why philanthropy in business is a strategic imperative, and outlining how and why branding our program is good for ABC.

Beyond my own summer projects, I also learned a lot about ABC's business overall. I had the chance to meet with members of the senior leadership team, including the CEO, the COO and a Director of Manufacturing, as well as with various department heads from Quality, Customer Marketing, Consumer and Business Insights, and others. As a nonprofit "veteran", it was eye-opening to spend 10 weeks at a company with 2000+ employees and learn how all of the various functional groups work together to make ABC so successful.

I was also lucky to meet and work with a friendly, smart group of MBA and undergraduate interns. Here I am with a few  intern friends at a tour of one of ABC's plants:

 OSC Tour

As my time at ABC wound down, I started to reflect on what I'd done and learned over the summer. A few highlights:

  1. Working in a for-profit setting is not all that different from a nonprofit: Sure, there is that one vital difference (ie: making money) - but besides that, I found that I acclimated pretty quickly. Interestingly, the part I found most "normal" (ie: similar to my nonprofit experiences) was the everyday, regular stuff: managing interpersonal dynamics with colleagues, finding enough time in the day to get everything done, and identifying ways to promote ideas and gain allies in the office. Ok, so ABC is for-profit. But beyond that, I felt right at home.
  2. How you talk to your employees is just as important as how you talk to your consumers (if not more!): Ultimately everything ABC does (from R&D to Marketing to Operations and beyond) is focused on driving sales, which means that the company (and every company for that matter) can get caught up in focusing on how it talks to its consumers. This is an imperative for business - but it doesn't take precedence over the conversation a company has with its own employees. To have happy consumers and customers, we must have happy employees. Sometimes when we get so focused on the bottom line, we forget how important it is to engage internal audiences in a conversation about our company values, heritage, mission, and goals. But as I learned in corporate giving, employees are our greatest asset and ambassadors; without them, the business just can't succeed.
  3. Change is sloooooooow: Change is such a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the idea of it gets our blood pumping and makes us feel energized and empowered; on the other, it can be overwhelming, unwanted, or feel like an unnecessary intrusion. Like any new employee, I came in to ABC this summer full of ideas, energy, and action, and I'm pleased to say I accomplished a lot. But any trouble I ran into this summer revolved around the idea that change - even good change - is slow moving. It takes time to get buy-in from the right people and package a message or idea in a way that your audience will understand - and even when you've done all of that, it's still a challenge to actually move the dial in the direction you want. I did a lot this summer, but I could have used way more than 10 weeks to really make an impact.

With just two weeks left until I begin my second year of my MBA, it's fun to look back on the summer and see what I accomplished. My experience at ABC really helped "round out" my understanding of how philanthropy (and CSR in general) can reinforce business goals and be a strategic advantage for companies that do it right. Now it's time to get back to school!

The Business Case for Doing Good

With only 3 weeks left in my internship at ABC, I'm starting to change direction a bit. The first 6-7 weeks really centered around time-sensitive deliverables like rolling out the employee product donation campaign and launching an internal corporate giving awareness program. As these efforts begin to wind down, I've been able to spend more time on one of my most exciting summer projects: building the case for branding corporate giving at ABC. As soon as I found out about this project I was excited to tackle it. I'm really interested in marketing and how brands convey certain messages, so thankfully this week I was able to get started. As I dove deeper into my research and read more about the power of brands in articulating a company's social agenda (and I must say, many thanks to Cone for providing some really terrific data), I started doing a lot of thinking not just about branding but about corporate giving and corporate social responsibility in general. My charge was (and still is) to build the case for branding. But somewhere along the way this week it turned into building the case for doing good.

Sometimes at ABC we walk a delicate line in terms of the purpose of our corporate giving program: are we giving back because it makes us feel good? Because it's the right thing to do? Because our employees are asking for it? Or because it ultimately impacts our bottom line? Often it feels like the programs we're promoting (employee donations of product and time, especially) are meant as engagement tools or as a way to do something out of the goodness of our hearts, and not because there is a strategic business reason. Although I like to believe that people want to give back and that "doing the right thing" is everyone's responsibility, even I understand that any corporate philanthropy program must have some sort of impact on business outcomes in order to recieve the support and funding it needs to succeed long-term.

This week I was lucky to have a conversation with David Almy, partner at ADC Partners, a sustainability and cause marketing firm in San Francisco, CA. I had gotten in touch with Dave to pick his brain about the role of brands in corporate giving programs, and he was nice enough to share some terrific ideas with me (and raise some really thought-provoking questions). One of the things that stuck out most in my mind from our conversation was the idea that both "philanthropy" and "brand" are very nebulous terms that are difficult to measure and quantify.

But therein lies the rub, Dave said. In business, everything is about measurement and impact -  and any company (and especially any CFO) that's going to buy into a corporate giving program will need to understand how it all connects to the bottom line. Unfortunately, these days it's just not so easy to wrap your arms around the impact of your corporate giving program (Funny enough, in a perfect example of the stars aligning this week, I also happened to meet Farron Levy, President of True Impact - a Boston-based firm that's developed tools to help companies measure the ROI of their corporate citizenship programs! From what I hear about True Impact, Farron is really one of the leaders in this kind of measurement and surely one to watch).

For Dave's part, he suggested I look at the customer lifecycle and consider how these kind of programs can go beyond employee engagement and move into customer satisfaction and purchase loyalty (afterall, happy employees beget happy customers, right?). This idea alone has given me food for thought and I've spent the time since my conversation with Dave considering how I can weave this into my branding project.

One other important point to mention from my talk with Dave: I've been doing a lot of thinking about companies with CSR or philanthropy programs and looking at which ones had these kinds of social agendas written into their DNA "at birth" (Seventh Generation, for instance) versus those companies that have built their programs up over time (there are lots of them). I asked Dave about this and whether he thought integrating this kind of social responsibility into everyday business from the get-go had anything to do with the success of that company's program. Dave didn't seem to be so sure, and to answer my question he gave me two examples.

The first is Salesforce.com, whose founder Marc Benioff very clearly had a vision for how he wanted to give back to the community through donations of money, product and time. If you don't yet know about the 1% program and the Salesforce.com Foundation, this is one to read up on and a great example of this kind of thinking being embedded in an organization from the beginning.

On the other hand, Dave pointed to Clorox as an example of a newly "converted" company; that is, one that's seeing firsthand that involvement in CSR and sustainability can really have an impact on the bottom line (even if this kind of agenda wasn't built into the fabric of the company from the start). Although it has received some criticism fom staunch environmentalists, Clorox's Green Works line of household cleaners has done incredibly well, especially with young moms who want to do good things for their families but don't necessarily want to pay extra. Throw in Clorox's recent acquisition of Burt's Bees and their new Brita Filter for Good campaign and all of a sudden you've got a company who's quickly learned that doing good can be good for business.

This is a relevant debate for me a for a couple of reasons:

1) because I want to figure out how to help ABC "become" a Clorox

2) because eventually I want to create my own for-profit social venture (thus mixing business and giving back).

Although I'm not yet ready to go out on my own and start my own business, in an interesting twist I'm pleased to say that my mom Janice is. For 30 years my mom owned The Bead Shop, a Bay Area bead store with a global reach and a local community impact strategy. Through donations of gift certificates, products, and cash, my mom's business supported organizations in the Bay Area for decades. Unfortunately The Bead Shop closed its doors in August of 2008, and since then my mom has been crafting a new business strategy. And like Seventh Generation, my mom wants her business to have a social agenda from Day One. In fact, she's being very honest about her commitment to this kind of giving back, and I couldn't be more proud. I hope you'll take a moment to read about her ideas and support her work as she creates a new business at www.beadshop.com. Way to go, mom!

Overall it was a very thought-provoking and energizing week, with lots of questions and ideas racing around in my head. And I know I've thrown a lot at you in this post. But I hope it's made you think about what kind of social contract a business might have with its community. When you see companies with philanthropy or CSR programs, do you trust them more? What makes them seem genuine to you as opposed to just a marketing ploy? And does the presence of those programs make you want to spend your money with them over their competitors? I'm very curious to hear your thoughts!

Musings on Mission

One of the best benefits of being both an MBA student and summer intern is the chance to think deeply and honestly about what I want to be when I "grow up". Between career seminars, lunch and learns, informational interviews, and being back in an office again, I've had plenty of opportunities to really explore what I want my professional life to look like. Before business school I worked as a fundraiser for a couple of organizations - each with different missions, cultures, and values. What's funny about fundraising is that at the end of the day, you really are selling something. Not a product, obviously, but a mission and a cause. When I was at the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, "selling" this cause was really easy. Not only did I personally believe in and connect with Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, but so did practically every prospective donor that walked through the doors.

Why was this the case?

It all comes down to the power of a personal, face-to-face introduction with a mission that matters.

While touring a children's hospital may not sound like a fun way to spend the day, in fact every time I started cultivating a relationship with a donor, I would try to get a hospital visit on the calendar. Sure, those visits were emotional - sometimes sad, sometimes thrilling, sometimes joyful - but everytime, no matter what, that emotion was valuable. Not only would it encourage empathy and thoughtfulness on the part of the donor, but it served as a true connector for them with our organization's mission. They saw our work with their own eyes, and they were converted.

From the children's hospital I moved on to The BizWorld Foundation, a terrific education organization teaching entrepreneurship and business skills to children and young teens. Again, a cause I really connected with, especially as I learned more about how little education children actually get around financial literacy and business. In this case, though, connecting my donors with this mission turned out to be a huge challenge due to a number of obstacles (including, but not limited to, the fact that our programs were taught in classrooms all over the country at different times of the year, essentially making scheduled classroom visits practically impossible). Because of this, I often struggled to identify how to turn my donors into true believers; no matter how worthy the cause, they simply couldn't witness it with their own eyes. 

My experiences with these two organizations proved to me that mission really matters, not only for my own personal satisfaction but as a way to connect people around me with what I'm doing.

Not surprising, then, is the fact that at ABC it has been difficult for me to find the mission in what I'm doing. Afterall, it's a consumer products company, not a children's hospital. And even though I'm working in corporate giving, at the end of the day the company's purpose is still to sell its products and make a profit (I suppose you could say that is ABC's "mission", but that's not the kind of mission I'm talking about).  

What's interesting, though, is that this week I got a little taste of what I believe ABC's true mission to be. I was fortunate to get to go on the road for a day and meet some of ABC's growers (without giving too much away, all of ABC's products are made from raw agricultural materials). At first I was just excited to learn more about how ABC produces its goods, but after setting foot on one of the grower-owned farms, I instantly knew my primary purpose for visiting: connecting with ABC's mission.

Standing there, surrounded by lush green hills and in such a lovely natural setting, I immediately felt in tune with the company and its heritage. I laughed to myself as I thought back on my fundraising days and said to myself, "This would make a great donor tour". While not donors, it was obvious to me that ABC's customers and consumers should all be given the chance to see this work in person. It really was an incredible sight.

It just goes to show that regardless of whether you're selling tennis shoes or promoting a local soup kitchen, finding ways to connect emotionally and personally with your customers, donors, and community is crucial to success.

So what does all this mean for me? As I continue my career exploration, I've been thinking more and more about becoming a true social entrepreneur and starting something on my own. I love the idea of being innovative and creative and developing something that really can make a difference - in short, something that matters.

What's holding me back? The truth is, I don't yet know what my own true mission will be.

Every professional experience I've had has proven to me that I have to be connected to a cause that resonates, and no where is that lesson more applicable than in starting your own venture. What will my organization do? Who will I help? How will I do it? And why will it matter?

Currently these questions all remain unanswered for me, but my hope is that everything will become clearer with time. After another year of school and learning experiences under my belt, I may feel much more assured and comfortable with all of this. For now, though, all I do know is that the mission has to be priority #1.

Eco-Labels, Greenwashing and You

Last week I attended an interesting dinner hosted by the Boston chapter of Net Impact. The event was called "Eco-labelling: From Certification to Greenwashing" and it featured Stas Antons, Principal at Jump To Green, Inc., a new start-up that uses interactive labelling technology to create personalized, green labels for products and companies. I've been thinking a lot lately about certification systems and labelling programs, so I was excited to attend. Before I go any further, it's probably a good idea to lay out exactly what I mean by labels. The way I see it, green or "eco" labels include any icon or graphic found on a packaged product or used in the rating of a product/company that somehow distinguishes that entity as environmentally or socially sustainable. Some examples include Energy Star (appliances), Fair Trade Certified (agriculture), LEED (buildings), and B Labs (companies).

Stas opened his remarks with a couple of interesting ideas. First, he said there are three essential problems with the green labelling movement (and trust me, it is quite the movement - a recent Detroit News article claimed there are over 300 organizations now offering their own form of certification for green products and companies):

1) There are no standards in labelling, so there is no way to tell what one label means as compared to another.

2) It's hard to tell the real story behind the product because labels will mean different things to different people. Take the USDA Organic label: not only is the word "organic" interpreted differently, but the USDA's website doesn't offer much clarity either!

3) Because there are so many certification and labelling programs out there, the level of trust on the part of consumers is very low. Add to that the fact that articulating a product or company's entire backstory or mission through a small label is practically impossible, and you've got a recipe for confusion.

The second point that Stas made, that I thought was particularly telling, was that he is considering removing the word "Green" from the name of his company. As we all can attest, these days the word green is so overused that it's practically meaningless. In fact, some would argue (myself included) that particularly savvy consumers now see the word Green and run in the opposite direction, thinking it's simply a marketing ploy to get people to open up their wallets.

This point led to a particularly interesting discussion on the role that consumers play in all of this. In general the consensus of those folks in attendance (a group of about 20 sustainability and CSR professionals) was that consumers don't quite understand the "language" of sustainability. While many consumers are interested in supporting green products and companies, their attempts to do so are often misguided. Instead of making smart choices based on education and facts, consumers often flock to words they know and understand, like "recycled content". This makes it challenging for consumers to separate "real" sustainability leaders from other half-hearted campaigns that just throw in this sort of lingo. In turn, it makes it difficult for companies genuinely focused on sustainability to stand out in a crowded field of green competitors.

It's true that our marketplace is saturated with green labels, and consumers must take responsibility for educating themselves and learning how to distinguish between real sustainability campaigns and imposters. But truly responsible companies must also engage their consumers in a candid and honest dialogue about what they're doing to make their products and services more environmentally sustainable.

While the conversation at dinner continued, I couldn't help but think of my own work at ABC. All day long I consider ways that the company can include and involve its employees in its philanthropic efforts, and one of the big reasons is so that each employee is educated enough to go out in the community and act as a company ambassador. When you think about it, each ABC employee is also a consumer - of ABC products and others - so the more educated the employees are about the environment, about philanthropy, and about sustainability in general, the better consumers they become.

Sure, companies must do better at engaging external audiences in this sustainability conversation. But I wondered, "What are they doing at home?".

I tried asking this of the group, and unfortunately (and perhaps tellingly), I couldn't really get a clear answer. The moment passed, and the conversation quickly turned to other issues like the premium price tag often attached to green products. All in all, it was a thought-provoking evening - but I just couldn't shake the feeling that we were missing a key point: if companies can't talk to their own employees about why their products are good for the Earth, how can they possibly tell a compelling story to their customers?

This is where the "You" part in this post's title comes in: have you worked for a company that's done a good job of communicating both externally and internally what it's doing for environmental or social responsibility? How did they do it? I'd really love to hear your examples/anecdotes/personal experiences. And I'm going to keep working on it on my end - both during my time at ABC as an intern and also as I head back to school and keep learning. I really do think that these initiatives - whether environmental, social, or philanthropic - must start at home (or in this case the office), and the more companies involve their employees in this conversation, the more loyal consumers they will eventually attract.

**Coincidentally, my dear friend Alexandra Michalko just published an article on The EcoInnovator entitled "Untangling the Web of Green Product Credentials". Another great perspective on eco-labelling and greenwashing issues. Thanks for sharing Alex!

Diary of An Intern: Learning How to Communicate Change

Over the last few weeks at my internship, I've gotten an insider's view of a corporate philanthropy program in action. I've learned about how ABC gives (through donations of money, product and time) and what kinds of programs it will support (generally, family health and wellness, although the guidelines get more narrow for more restricted things like cash grants). And so far it's been a great learning experience, one that has reinforced my view that, when done right, for-profit companies really can use corporate giving programs to not only better their communities but connect more effectively and genuinely with their customers and employees. In all of this learning, though, there's been one unexpected challenge: what happens when a company has put a corporate giving strategy in place...but no one pays attention?

Perhaps the biggest bump in the road that I've encountered so far is a true lack of knowledge, awareness, and unfortunately in a large handful of cases, what appears to be a disinterest in ABC's corporate philanthropy program. The lack of knowledge and awareness shouldn't surprise me - afterall, this is why I was hired in the first place (that whole "Socialization plan" I talked about a few weeks ago). But I've been a bit taken aback by some of the employees at ABC who don't seem all that interested in our program and what we're trying to accomplish.

Case in point: I've talked about those intern training meetings the company holds, where senior leaders from different functional areas come to talk to us about the work they do. At the start of every meeting, we go around the table and introduce ourselves and what department we're in. ABC has interns in finance, marketing, new business development, even packaging - and when those interns say what they're doing for the summer, no one raises an eyebrow. But when I explain I'm working in corporate giving - well, all I can say is it's like on TV when all of a sudden the record screeches to a halt and the room goes silent. People just don't seem to get it.

This got me thinking: what can I do to not only educate employees about corporate giving at ABC, but actually incentivize them to get involved?

I've often spoken with employees about the program, and while a little education helps them understand the point of it, it still doesn't seem to register with them that they can actually participate in it. They seem to "get" why it's important in the grand scheme of things (at least as it relates to making our consumers happy), but often it appears there still is a disconnect when it comes to why this should matter to them specifically. On the other hand, I know through both actual and anecdotal evidence that corporate giving is important and that it should matter to our employees - which I guess just demonstrates how assumptions (and perhaps my own idealism) can get in the way of actual progress.

Anyway, what's interesting is that this whole epiphany around how to effectively promote this kind of program and activate employees to get involved coincided with a recent conversation I had with a new friend of mine, Monica Nakielski. Monica is Principal at Harmeda, a CSR strategy consulting firm in Boston. Over the last few months she's been kind enough to serve as a source of information, background, and insights for me during my own career exploration (you can follow her on twitter and read her insights for yourself at @mnakielsi). Anyway, Monica and her colleague Heather Stagl (@enclaria) have just written a workbook entitled "Plan to Avoid Scattershot Change: A Step-by-Step Guide to Communicating for Change" and they were kind enough to give me a sneak peak. What's great about it is that it literally walks you through the steps involved in communicating change at your organization, including targeting your message to the specific audience you're trying to reach as well as carefully choosing the medium through which you'll transmit your story. It turns out that it's not as simple as just telling people about your program and expecting them to get on board - which, in hindsight, is what I have been doing without even realizing it.

One of my favorite sections of the workbook talks about how to "Entice, Educate, and Engage" the stakeholders involved in the change initiative, and I've been thinking a lot about how to do that at ABC. Interestingly, the Educate and Engage parts don't seem as tough as the Entice idea. In the end, I think it comes down to creating a message and action plan that is so compelling, transparent and genuine that the reasons to get involved seem obvious (which I know is easier said than done, but in theory shouldn't be too tough considering we're talking about philanthropy). I can educate employees about corporate giving, and I can recruit employees who have participated to engage their colleagues in the program.

But when messages constantly compete for employee attention and you can't offer incentives beyond "feeling good," how do you entice people to sit up and pay attention? 

This is a question I'll be working through over the next few weeks and I'd love your feedback. How have you caught people's attention and inspired change from within? What's worked? And what hasn't? And of course I'll keep you posted on my progress.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Monica and Heather's workbook, they're going to be hosting a webinar on July 17th for Net Impact members to introduce their ideas and walk people through the plan. You can check out more details on the The Changebase events tab under July or click here.