Corporate Giving from the Front Lines

stjudelogo The holiday season is officially upon us, which means it’s time for turkey and gravy, Christmas carols, Chanukah lights, and lots of family time.

For many people, the holidays also mean shopping. Lots of shopping.

This holiday season actually finds me working retail at one of my favorite stores (a national culinary specialty store that will remain nameless).

While I’m still splitting my time between job searching, contract work and volunteering, I thought getting into the spirit of holiday retail would be a great way to keep busy and make some cash (not to mention take advantage of a sweet employee discount!).

Interestingly, though, as an advocate for corporate responsibility, working retail this holiday season has also given me the chance to see what CSR on the ground floor looks like.

After all, many companies can claim to have a culture and value system that encourages giving back, but how does that belief system actually trickle down to a local level?

But before I dig into the details, let me first ask: how many of you have been out shopping recently and were asked by a sales associate at the register to donate to a cause? If your experience is anything like mine, you’ve been asked for a lot of donations from a lot of different retailers recently.

Now, in a past life I was a fundraiser, so I understand the importance of asking. Yet even I have to admit that I’ve been suffering from donor fatigue these days – not because I don’t want to support important causes, but really more because I’m just tired of being solicited all the time.

So you can imagine my delight (read: chagrin) when I first learned that, as a holiday cashier, it was my responsibility to ask people to donate to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that I didn’t support the cause. St. Jude is an incredible organization doing amazing work to provide treatment to children with cancer and other illnesses, regardless of their families’ ability to pay. And children’s health is personally very important to me, given my own experience losing two childhood friends to cancer.

But asking customers for money? When they’re already exhausted and overwhelmed with holiday shopping? I was skeptical.

Nonetheless, on my first day on the job, I tried to put down my own anxiety about asking customers for donations, and instead channeled my own personal connection to this very important organization.

“Would you like to add a dollar donation to St. Jude’s today?” I asked customers as a rang up the next sale.

And you know what? They did!

Sure, some people said no. Some said they already support other charities, while a handful of others just said they weren’t interested. But to my surprise and delight, a lot of people said yes.

While I’m still new to holiday retail, I can say I’ve been really impressed to see the reaction that St. Jude has gotten both from customers and the company. While I don’t know a ton of history about the company’s partnership with St. Jude, I do know that over the years it’s provided millions of dollars – through customer donations and its own corporate philanthropy – to the hospital in support of its programs.

The best part – or should I say, the most striking part – of my experience asking for customer support for St. Jude has been the push that local store management has made to set and meet goals for donations. Of course, setting goals in a retail environment, especially during the holidays, is a no-brainer. But to set and push goals around charitable donations? That was new to me.

In fact the store that I work at has a very ambitious goal to reach for customer donations to St. Jude, and managers are holding us all accountable for hitting this target.

As an example, at a recent staff meeting, the topic of conversation wasn’t just what’s on sale or what items to push; instead, much of our meeting was spent discussing St. Jude – why it’s an important organization to support, how customers and employees can get involved, and what our donation goals were for the day. And amazingly, even during our busiest times that day, the manager didn’t check in about what was selling, but what was being donated!

When I applied to this holiday job, I didn’t expect to get up close and personal with the company’s corporate giving campaign. But let me tell you – as a new employee it’s been incredibly heartening to so quickly and obviously see the company support a cause that’s meaningful to me.

More than that, it’s been inspiring to see customers embrace this campaign as readily as they have. There are so many important causes that could use our support, and with so many organizations to choose from, it’s easy to assume that customers will react negatively to yet another request for money.

Then again, when you think about it, all I’ve been doing at the register is rallying my community to support others in need.

If it really does take a village, as they say, then I’ve been very impressed by my village’s willingness to help out at the holidays.

With that in mind, I hope the next time you’re asked to give back at the register, you’ll also think about doing your part.

I wish each of you a restful and fulfilling Thanksgiving holiday, and happy shopping!

Meeting Our Future Women Leaders

85BroadsBU This weekend I was lucky enough to be featured as a panelist at the third annual Boston University 85 Broads conference. The theme of the event was “Rising to the Top,” and it brought together an incredible group of professional and undergraduate women to learn from each other and network.

If you aren’t familiar with 85 Broads, a quick check of their website tells an interesting story:

85 Broads is a global network of 20,000 trailblazing women who are inspired, empowered, and connected.

The "founding members" of 85 Broads were women who worked for Goldman Sachs at 85 Broad Street, the investment banking firm's NYC headquarters. Over the past decade, 85 Broads expanded its membership to include women who are alumnae and students of the world's leading colleges, universities, and graduate schools worldwide. Our members are located in 82 countries around the world and work for thousands of for-profit companies and not-for-profit organizations.

As a graduate of an all-girls high school and a big proponent of creating leadership opportunities for women in business, I’ve always been curious about 85 Broads – which is why it was so exciting to be invited to present at the BU chapter’s annual conference.

The panel I participated in was for undergraduate women interested in pursuing nonprofit careers, and I was joined by two other panelists doing some incredible work:

  • Amma Sefa-Dedeh, executive director of One Hen (a very cool microfinance nonprofit here in Boston) and a recent Babson MBA graduate
  • Jenny Jordon, associate consultant at The Bridgespan Group (an off-shoot of Bain & Company that works specifically with nonprofit clients).

Amma, Jenny and I were there to talk about our experiences working in nonprofit leadership roles, discuss the various advantages and challenges of working in the nonprofit sector, and to answer questions from the young women in attendance.

For my part, I got the chance to talk about my work in fundraising, my interest in corporate social responsibility, and my decision to pursue an MBA. Many attendees were also interested to hear how I was using The Changebase to not only share ideas and create conversation, but also as a personal branding tool during my job search.

One particular question seemed to strike a chord not just for the women in the audience but for me as well.

An attendee asked about switching from the nonprofit sector to the corporate world, and vice versa: “Is it hard to make the switch” she wondered, “or do I need to pick one sector and stick with it?”

Given that I am a sector-switcher myself, this is something I tackle regularly in my cover letters and job applications. My feeling is that there’s nothing wrong with “switching sides” but you do need to be prepared to do a little extra hand-holding with potential employers. The experience and background that resonates with recruiters in one sector might not be what resonates with recruiters in another, so job seekers need to be prepared for this.

As Amma so insightfully put it: “Career switchers need to put in 200% extra effort” – whether you’re moving from one sector to another, or simply switching functions like going from engineering to finance, you need to be ready to work that much harder to get people to take a chance on you and your skills.

Certainly valuable advice for everyone in the room – even me!

In all I was incredibly impressed by the roughly 25-30 young women in attendance (dressed in suits on a Saturday no less!). Between the thoughtfulness of their questions and their passion for learning about and doing this important work, it was clear to me that these women are motivated to not only make social change, but to forge ahead in their own professional careers.

In my opinion, if the women in attendance are any indication of the quality of our future women leaders, I think we’re in good hands!

The End of the Barking Dog

Dog Barking
So Ferocious!

What’s your opinion on the purpose of corporate philanthropy?

Is it an example of the powerful partnership that can be created between business and nonprofits?

Or is it simply about writing a check – and checking a box?

I mentioned in an earlier post on The Changebase that I recently attended the 2009 Net Impact Conference at Cornell University, and one of the panels I attended tackled this question.

The panel was called “The Evolution of Corporate Philanthropy: Achieving Greater Impact through Strategic Giving” – and moderator Mark Kramer, managing director at FSG Social Impact Advisors, immediately set the record straight regarding the changing role of corporate philanthropy over time.

His hypothesis is that in the last twenty years, the purpose of corporate philanthropy has evolved from mere existence (he actually used the word "irrelevance") to creating shared value for a company, its nonprofit partners, and its community.

To prove this point, Mark enlisted the help of an impressive corporate philanthropy panel:

Here’s what I learned:

Question: Do you still run into the issue of people doubting whether philanthropy is an important part of business?

Jason from Levi’s started out by noting that his company is privately-owned with a history of philanthropic community support (a factor that I believe is crucially important when it comes to the successful adoption/implementation of sustainability and CSR programs). He noted that the company’s new CEO understands that even in bad times philanthropy is a core component of Levi Strauss’ business.

Anne from Accenture said that, in this tough economy, shareholders don’t always want to see large checks going out the door. To respond to this, she and her team have focused more on donations of employee time through skills-based volunteering – which, given the experience of the Accenture workforce – is certainly a valuable gift.

Question: How can philanthropy be used to drive business goals?

I thought this was an especially important question – as I learned this summer as a corporate philanthropy intern, “doing the right thing” will only get you so far.

In the end, it’s about proving that the corporate philanthropy program is aligned with the business objectives.

Hasting said that philanthropy often reinforces the work that his company does by enabling Shell to have a presence in local communities. For example, every city or town that hosts a Shell refinery also has a community advisory panel (managed by the Shell Foundation and made up of local leaders and city advocates) that meets quarterly to engage in dialogue and share feedback or concerns. Thus philanthropy serves as an entry point for Shell to connect with its local communities.

Jason acknowledged that Levi Strauss engages in philanthropy because it’s the right thing to do, but it also looks critically at how philanthropy can have an impact on the business. One area of focus for Levi’s is its network of over 600 suppliers. Through its Foundation, Levi Strauss is training suppliers and their employees on issues relating to human rights and labor conditions in factories. In this way, corporate philanthropy is another lever that Levi’s can pull to ensure that its business is successful and sustainable.

Question: What kinds of attitude changes have you seen taking place in regards to public/private partnerships?

Anne noted that in the past relationships between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors had been strained, and even antagonistic. But, she believed that partnerships among businesscaretag, nonprofits and governments were growing in popularity – and that when you focus on opportunities to partner with, rather than fight against, other organizations you ultimately create even more value and impact.

Jason highlighted the recent launch of a new partnership with Goodwill as an example of the power that can come through partnerships.

After evaluating their supply chain, Levi’s found that the greatest use of energy in the lifecycle of their 501 jean is consumer washing of the product at home. This made the company realize that it needed to do a better job of educating its consumers regarding how to care for their jeans as well as what to do with them once they were no longer wanted. And thus the Goodwill partnership – and a new Levi’s care tag on the inside of all 501 jeans – was borne.

Question: Given our economy, how has your company’s outlook on philanthropy changed?

In general, all of the panelists agreed that they’ve seen cuts to their budgets and staff. But, they also all agreed that they’re not seeing an abandonment of philanthropy just because times are tough.

As one panelist put it, “philanthropy is about being in it for the long haul” – and companies can’t just leave their communities because the economy is struggling.

All panelists did agree that, beyond measurement, monetizing the impact of philanthropy is a huge challenge. Levi’s, for instance, looks at measuring impact through the “buzz” that their cause marketing campaigns create, while Accenture uses storytelling to demonstrate the impact of their community investments.

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the session came when one panelist asked why corporate philanthropy was being forced to prove financial returns to the business when other functions (like marketing) have always had dubious connections to ROI?

In the end, he said, we need to stop being “the barking dog” - that is, forcing a conversation about why philanthropy matters - and instead showcase the assets that philanthropy has to offer to the business.

I couldn’t agree more!

A Nonprofit Gal Goes Corporate

For as long as I can remember, I have always felt a connection with the nonprofit sector. Maybe it’s because I grew up doing community service and working with local charities, or maybe it’s just that my heart and my spirit have always needed to engage in projects that had a positive impact on others. Whatever the reason, I have always gravitated toward work with a social mission. So it was a no brainer that when I graduated from college, I joined the ranks of nonprofit employees across the country and got to work.  The first time I dipped my toes into the corporate water was when I applied to business school. After five years of fundraising for Bay Area nonprofits, I felt deeply rooted in the nonprofit community. I understood how to exist and thrive in that realm, how to partner with donors and other organizations to truly effect change. In short, they were my people, and I was theirs.

Yet, no matter how attached or connected I felt in the safe nonprofit space I had created, I knew there was something missing. Some people say that nonprofits don’t focus on the cold, hard impact numbers. Others say nonprofits suffer from a crisis of management and leadership experience. And others actually say both are true. For me, no matter how aligned my personal beliefs were with the nonprofit sector and the good work it does, I felt as though I could do more and do better by understanding how “the other half” lived. Which is how I found my way to the Boston University Graduate School of Management.

The BU GSM (as we call it) has been a great place to land for a nonprofiteer in the midst of a bit of an identity crisis (check out BU’s Public and Nonprofit Management Program for more info). I came to BU armed with my fundraising experience and a keen understanding of how the nonprofit sector operated. Yet I also arrived with a true curiosity about how business—with its access to financial, technological, and staff resources that often far exceed those in the nonprofit world—might tackle some of the global, social issues that I care about. Thus I began my first year of business school.

The past 9 months have been a time of intense questioning and driven exploration for me. I have started getting better at seeing problems through the lens of business, and my solutions these days often involve a deeper consideration of revenue streams, operating costs, and shareholder concerns. Yet what’s interesting is that when you think about it, these three issues, while packaged in business language, are actually also necessary priorities in any nonprofit organization. More organizations these days are looking for ways to become self-sustaining through revenue, especially in this economic climate. Maintaining low operating costs is also a huge issue in the sector when so many funders only want to support programmatic expenses. And shareholders in the nonprofit world are simply donors who believe in your mission enough to invest in the work that you do. If there's any development director out there who’s not concerned about keeping her donors happy, I’d like to know what her secret is.

In short, while there may be some very fundamental differences between businesses and nonprofit organizations (which I’m sure will become its own post at some point!), I do believe there are a lot of similarities. And, with a year of business school under my belt, I’m pleased to say that I will soon have the opportunity to become a bit of an expert on this topic.

Starting next week, I’ll be interning at an international consumer products company in Massachusetts (for confidentiality’s sake, I’ll be calling this company ABC throughout my blog). As one of their first-ever corporate philanthropy interns, I will be responsible for solidifying and growing ABC’s corporate giving efforts, which include cash and product donations, as well as employee volunteer hours. It’s a very big job that I’m very excited to start—and I’ll be bringing The Changebase readers along with me throughout the summer.

When I look back at where my journey started in fundraising, and the path I have taken through my first year at BU, I laugh a little bit when I think about my summer plans. Before business school I would have never expected to work anywhere but a nonprofit, and yet I am thrilled to have the chance to understand philanthropy through the eyes of a for-profit corporation. While I’m sure that there will be an inherent, steep learning curve, my hunch is that perhaps it won’t look that different from what I’ve known so far in my career. After all, ABC wants happy, healthy and satisfied customers, which is what every nonprofit wants for its community. At the end of the day, we both want the same thing—we just get there differently. Here’s to seeing how the other half lives!


The Language of Nonprofits

Last night I attended a joint Net Impact Boston/Young Nonprofit Professionals Network event called "The Role of Philanthropy in Solving Social Issues." It featured Phil Buchanan, CEO of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Boston. While the talk was promoted as being about philanthropy, Mr. Buchanan spent most of his time actually speaking about the "distinct value" and purpose of nonprofits and foundations as separate from their for-profit counterparts. In fact, much of Mr. Buchanan's talk was centered on a discussion of why nonprofits and businesses cannot and should not mix.

One major point of contention for Mr. Buchanan was the idea that all we need to do is take the best practices from the business world, apply them to the nonprofit sector, and instantly nonprofits will be more effective.  This was interesting to me because, while perhaps a bit oversimplified, this explanation is actually the reasoning I used to get into business school, and I think many of my classmates would agree with me. I've worked in nonprofits where the organizations' leaders had no idea how to manage the financials, or had no leadership and management training--and the organizations suffered for it. So why wouldn't I want to go get my MBA, learn how they do it in the business world, and then bring those ideas back to my nonprofit?

Interestingly, Mr. Buchanan said that while nonprofits can and must always find new ways to be effective, "business doesn't have a monopoly on effectiveness." And in fact, to assume that business principles automatically apply to nonprofit scenarios is to deny that the economics of each organization are actually different. For-profit entities have one basic performance measure; no matter what a business sells or what industry it's in, that company can be compared to other businesses using one common language: Profit. A company, no matter how ethical or charitable it might be, would never consistently charge less than what it costs to provide a service or product. And yet, this is what nonprofits do every day.

Mr. Buchanan went on to say that thinking we can have one common metric for performance in nonprofits is foolish: even if we could show that "my donation planted these trees," it's impossible to compare across different projects. Because of this, we cannot assume that taking the language of business (ie: profit) and transposing it onto a nonprofit organization will work. This was one of the big themes of the night: Nonprofits and foundations must resist the temptation to use business jargon when evaluating and implementing their programs, and instead develop their own language (a big example given was the term "Venture Philanthropy," which Mr. Buchanan said was basically a poorly-used business analogy to venture capital that made no sense).

This led into the second big theme of the night: nonprofits have a distinct purpose (separate from business and government) and it needs to stay that way. Mr. Buchanan likened nonprofits to your friendly uncle at the business dinner table who leans over and tells you, "you've had one too many drinks tonight." Nonprofits, he said, often do things that governments and businesses can't or won't do, and for that reason they need to operate differently. Sure, nonprofits should be impact-driven and they should be effective, but they need to develop their own way of getting there. And impact, he said, is not just a business term--it's about getting results, and that's something that everyone wants.

While there were many points throughout the night that I agreed with, by this stage in the talk, I got the feeling that things were taking an unexpected "us against them" turn. Yes, I can see that nonprofits are unique entities and shouldn't just replicate the business world--but should we really keep our nonprofits so separate from business and government that they don't interact? With so much talk these days about partnerships and exchange between nonprofits and for-profits, it was surprising to hear someone so clearly advocating such a distinct divide.

All this talk of nonprofits versus for-profits really hit home for me because this month I start work as a corporate philanthropy intern for a major beverage company. Given what he has said about the distinct purpose of nonprofits (and the fact that business should essentially stay out of the way), I wondered what Mr. Buchanan thought about corporate philanthropy? In general, he said he's found corporate philanthropy to not be very effective. While some companies appear to be doing real work in this area (he mentioned Levi Strauss as an example), most are not. In fact, Mr. Buchanan said that overall he believes corporate philanthropy is not philanthropy--that it's more about a strategic alignment of a brand and a cause than doing real work. He said it's "healthier" to have boundaries around nonprofits, business and governments, and that in fact there is something "scary" about companies being able to define what social causes are important.

My follow-up question to him (which I was unfortunately unable to ask at the time) is: what's so wrong about a strategic alignment of brand and cause? Just because a company is blurring the boundary between itself and nonprofits doesn't mean it's not doing good things. If WalMart wants to deliver low-cost organic produce to the masses, for example, should we say no just because this initiative is coming from a big box store? Sure, not all corporate philanthropy efforts are as effective as they could be, but neither are a lot of nonprofits. It just doesn't seem ok to dismiss for-profit community efforts just because that support isn't coming from the nonprofit sector.

In the end, it was a thought-provoking evening and Mr. Buchanan was an incredibly engaging speaker. He raised some very important questions, and he got me (and the rest of the attendees) thinking, which is always exciting. But now I'm curious: what do you think about the type of relationship that should exist between nonprofits and business? Should we have a clear division, or are partnerships the way to go? I'd love to know your thoughts.

Some additional points and resources that Mr. Buchanan raised in his talk:

  • Concern about nonprofit impact metrics: Mr. Buchanan said that finding a common language to discuss impact was a huge challenge, with no right answer. He mentioned the Center for What Works, New Philanthropy Capital, and Root Cause as three organizations engaged in conversation around this issue.
  • Nonprofit mergers and joint ventures: As you know from a recent post of mine, the topic of mergers in the nonprofit sector is a popular one. Mr. Buchanan addressed this issue by suggesting that all nonprofits ask themselves, "How can we create the most impact?". If that means a merger, that's what an organization should do. However, he cautioned that collaboration is simply a means to an end (and the not the end itself), and that nonprofits should not collaborate just for the sake of collaboration.