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!

Running with the Big Dogs: CSR in Small Business

Big Dog, Little Dog Often when we talk about corporate social responsibility, we assume people are talking about "the big dogs" – companies like Proctor and Gamble, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and of course Walmart.

And certainly these powerhouses dictate a lot of what gets discussed, watched, and measured, if only because of their sheer scale and impact on the global business community.

But what about companies that don’t fit into the same tiers as these big players? What does sustainability or CSR look like for small and medium-sized businesses?

Recently I attended a talk at Mills College featuring the EVP of Marketing at Clif Bar and Company, Michelle Ferguson.

Before the talk I didn’t necessarily think of Clif Bar as a small company, but in fact it only employs 250 people. What the company might lack in size, however, it makes up for in passion for its consumers and its products. Whether through in-person events, an accessible social media presence, or high-touch consumer service, it’s clear that Clif Bar really does value the people who buy its products (and doesn’t just think of us Luna and Clif Bar eaters as a transaction to be managed).

And, in large part thanks to its founder Gary Erickson, Clif Bar and Company also boasts a very well-rounded, active and engaged sustainability program (for example, choosing to use only all organic and natural ingredients because it’s healthier for us and healthier for the environment).

Overall Clif Bar’s sustainability agenda rolls up into one philosophy called the 5 Aspirations, which include:

  1. Sustaining Our People
  2. Sustaining Our Brands
  3. Sustaining Our Communities
  4. Sustaining Our Planet
  5. Sustaining Our Business

While each Aspiration is important, Michelle said she considers Sustaining Our Business to be the foundation for everything else because, at the end of the day, Clif Bar and Company is a business. In order to support the other four Aspirations, Clif Bar’s business needs to be profitable; and, as the business grows, so do the other Aspirations.

This may not be a surprising statement, especially given the fact that most big companies will say the same thing. Still, when you’re talking about a small or mid-sized business – when there’s generally just less money and fewer resources to go around – ensuring a solid financial foundation really must come first.

The Bead ShopNowhere is this idea more evident than in my mom’s business, The Bead Shop. My mom Janice has been a small business owner for over 30 years, and recently her company has gone through some growing pains as the economy weakened and her customers changed their buying habits. In fact, in 2008 she closed her brick and mortar store and chose to focus exclusively on online sales through

With only three employees (including my mom), you might initially guess that The Bead Shop isn’t doing much in the way of CSR. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Much like Gary at Clif Bar, my mom is a business owner who believes in giving back – and so she’s made charitable giving and environmental sustainability two very big business priorities, even with the economy the way it is.

In fact, this year she committed to giving 5% of all sales (not profits, but sales) to two very important charities doing great work in the arts and for women (the way she sees it, if Target can give 5%, why can’t she?!). She’s also starting to explore more sustainable options for packaging and mailing out customer orders, including using biodegradable popcorn packaging and stringing bead orders on string instead of tossing them into plastic bags.

That said, as her business grows and changes over time, sometimes it's a challenge for my mom to find the balance between making money and giving it away! She wants to be committed to supporting various nonprofits and investing in more sustainable packaging, for instance, but knows that those kinds of actions can't come at the expense of her business. Ultimately, The Bead Shop's financial health, its financial sustainability, must come first.

In general Clif Bar and The Bead Shop are two very different companies, with very different products and customer bases. Still, as two businesses committed to bettering their communities and the world, perhaps in some ways they’re actually quite similar.

Using their stories as a guide, I've developed the following conclusions about small and medium-sized companies and CSR programs:

  1. Environmental (or social) sustainability can’t happen if financial sustainability isn’t there. As I said before, you may think this is a no brainer, but sometimes I think the CSR advocates out there (even including me at times) forget that CSR is a business strategy that requires money and other resources to thrive. And nowhere is this more true than in a small to medium-sized company where each sale can determine how much you can return to and invest in the community.
  2. CEO/Founder buy-in for sustainability – plus staying private – makes a huge difference. Unlike publicly-traded companies that have shareholders to consider, private companies like Clif Bar and The Bead Shop are led by committed sustainability champions who have the freedom and authority to make ethical, values-driven behavior a priority in their businesses, no matter how tough the economy or how small the budget.
  3. Often small and medium-sized businesses have no model to follow. Unlike big brands who have competitors to mimic and consultants to pay, smaller businesses have to figure out their CSR programs on their own (or in my mom’s case, with my help!). Deciding what causes align with your business model and how much to commit to which organization, not to mention learning how to evaluate your carbon footprint, can be a daunting task for a small business owner with a million things on her plate.
  4. Transparency and communication with consumers is king. Sure, transparency is the buzzword of the year. But when your business is small and each sale makes a huge difference, explaining your goals and mission clearly and authentically can be a tremendous differentiator for your company and help you build long-lasting relationships with your customers. In my opinion, the smaller you are, the more your consumer relationships (and by extension, your CSR communications) matter.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced of the important role small and medium-sized businesses can play in shaping the CSR conversation on both a local and national level. While they might not be as flashy or loud as the campaigns being run by larger brands, these smaller businesses are making a difference and impacting local economies and communities.

I encourage you to think through what small and medium-sized businesses in your neighborhood are running their own CSR campaigns – what do you think of them? What unique challenges or opportunities are they facing compared to bigger companies? And how can you help support them?

(PS: A quick and shameless plug - if you're looking for fun, creative holiday gifts and inspiring jewelry ideas, not to mention a way to support a small business's CSR program, check out my mom's store!)

Taking a Seat at an Uncommon Table

community-developmentLike any donor, corporate philanthropy departments today want to know that their investments in their community have an impact. It’s not about altruism (although giving back does feel good); instead, it’s about driving long-term, lasting change. This was the topic at hand during today's breakout session, “A Seat at the UnCommon Table: Leveraging your Philanthropic Investments in Educationas part of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship Conference.

Cheryl Kiser, managing director of The Lewis Initiative, Babson College and moderator of the panel opened our talk with the recent discovery of a worrying trend:

For over 25 years, corporate philanthropy professionals had indicated that their #1 funding and volunteer priority was education. In the last two years, however, Cheryl noticed in surveys of the field that corporate philanthropy departments were suffering from what she called the “3 F’s”:

They were Frustrated, they felt Fatigued, and they worried that they had Failed in their attempts to truly invest in educational systems and drive progress.

The purpose of the session, then, was to leverage what Cheryl called “The Uncommon Table” – in essence a platform in which participants could go beyond the static idea-sharing common within homogenous sectors or industries and instead participate in “uncommon conversations with unusual suspects.” After all, she reasoned, “no one company can go it alone.”

To do this, Cheryl was joined by a group of terrific and highly knowledgeable panelists:

Together, Cheryl and the panelists opened themselves up to questions from the audience in what was an informal and informative discussion on the state of the U.S. Education System and how corporate funders can get involved. A few takeaways are worth sharing:

One attendee asked a question that seemed to resonate throughout the room: “If we’re supposed to help fix American education, shouldn’t we know (and agree on) what’s broken?”

While all panelists had opinions on just what’s wrong, Suzanne from the Department of Education boiled it down to four problem areas:

  1. Human Capital (both supporting educators and administrators, as well as making school relevant to students);
  2. Information and data systems (to track, measure, and strategize);
  3. Different state standards and assessment tools to tracking student performance
  4. Low performing schools that consistently underperform without being reformed.

Interestingly, one panelist suggested that in order to tackle these problems, business should look at its core competencies and the areas in which it has the most credibility. Many of the areas in which business excels – management training, information systems, data analysis, etc – are the areas that schools need the most help with. Given this, Lydia encouraged the audience to consider how their corporate investments in education were aligned with these four areas – if they’re not aligned, she suggested, companies would do well to refocus.

Other relevant conversation points included how companies can drive innovation through partnerships and grant proposals with the Department of Education (who, by the way, is putting an incredible amount of stimulus funding innovation and reform in education), as well as what other countries are doing to support their educational systems as they grow, develop, and eventually surpass the U.S. in the rankings.

In all, the session provided a thoughtful look at the multiple, challenging issues that corporate funders and schools face as they partner to effect change in our educational system. Hopefully this will be the start of more informal “Uncommon Tables” throughout the U.S. as attendees go back to their home offices and share what they learned.

Ashley’s Note: This is the second of three posts I wrote as a featured blogger for The Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship’s 2010 Annual Conference. Click these links to learn more about the conference, check out the session description, and to read all the blog posts from the event.

A Daily Dose of Inspired Philanthropy

Philanthropy Betty Londergan is a woman on a mission.

Since the start of 2010, Betty has embarked on a journey of what I can only describe as “Inspired Philanthropy”.

But before I dive into Betty’s story – let me ask you this:

How many times a day do you stop and think about the people around you and their personal stories?

The woman sitting next to you on the bus, the man in the cubicle down the hall, or the little kids playing on the basketball court - How many times do you stop to think: “Who are they?” or “Where did they come from?” And, perhaps most importantly, “Do they need my help?”

As we get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of life (errands, work, family, etc), it’s easy to stay focused on ourselves and what we need or want.

I’m just as “guilty” of this as anyone; between school, my job search, and being a wife, daughter and friend, my plate is pretty full these days. Not to mention the fact that my wallet is pretty tight too.

Given both these financial and time constraints, when it comes to my own personal charitable giving, I often fall back on old habits. I have my list of go-to organizations and, when I find myself in a giving mood, I just direct my donations to them.

Maybe it’s jusbetty-photot me, but I don’t often consider which new or innovative ideas and organizations are deserving of my donations – in large part, I think, because I’m just too darned busy to search!

Enter Betty Londergan, whose 2010 resolution is “365 days of putting my money where my mouth is”.

Betty’s blog, What Gives 365, is a daily record of her journey in philanthropy. For 365 days Betty has pledged to give $100 a day to people and organizations doing great work.

How does Betty choose where to give? In her own words:

In super general terms, I’m going to give to places that I have a personal connection with [and] I’ll tell you the story behind my gift in the hopes that you might be moved to support the cause, too. I will try to choose organizations that will use the money effectively and wisely (I’m checking organizations out with Charity Navigator and the American Institute of Philanthropy).

Beyond that, my yardstick is to give money to alleviate things that make me want to cry; things that make me feel ferociously protective; things that make me want to say Amen; and things that just make me feel good.

In essence, Betty has decided to pay attention to the everyday people and stories that move her.

I recently signed up for her RSS feed (and I encourage you to do the same) – which means that every day I get a short, sweet, and inevitably inspiring story of amazing people doing incredible work.

Work that I would have never known about had Betty not stopped to take some time, connect with others, and hear their stories.

In the end I think philanthropy is about connecting with the people, animals, environments and organizations around us – and supporting what moves us.

Unlike Betty, we might not all be able to give $100 a day. But what if we gave $50 a day, or $10, or even $1? Our smaller gifts might not have the impact that Betty’s do, but we’d still be reconnecting with our community and supporting causes that are meaningful to us.

Now that’s what I'd call Inspired Philanthropy.

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!