Welcome to our series of interviews with leading female CSR practitioners where we are learning about what inspires these women and how they found their way to careers in sustainability. Read the rest of the series here.
TriplePundit: Briefly describe your role and responsibilities, and how many years you have been in the business.
Nichole Lecher: I am proud to serve as the director of strategic philanthropy and community relations at Northwestern Mutual. My work with the Northwestern Mutual Foundation drives sustainable social impact in the communities in which our employees and financial representatives live and work.
Two years ago, I came to the Northwestern Mutual Foundation to spearhead the strategic development and launch of the Childhood Cancer Program, our first-ever national signature initiative. Our program is dedicated to accelerate the search for a cure to childhood cancer and to provide support to kids and families facing the daily struggles of this disease. In just two years, we have brought this program to more than 10,000 Northwestern Mutual financial representatives and staff, as well as 5,000 employees at our corporate headquarters in Milwaukee.
In addition, my work includes oversight of the Foundation’s strategy, operations and other relationships with key nonprofit partners.
3p: How has the CSR program evolved at your company?
NL: Northwestern Mutual has always had a “do what’s right” ethos, which was applied in all areas of our business and community relationships.
Our Foundation’s financial giving and volunteerism historically supported a number of important social causes in our local communities. As those of us working in CSR know, there are numerous issues affecting our society and it’s easy to spread your resources thin as you try to support those many needs. For us, a broad strategy also made it challenging to measure our social impact and ensure that we were fueling positive changes in our communities.
Over the past five years, we’ve worked to narrow our focus and become more strategic in our giving. In 2012, we went through an extensive process to refine our strategy. From that process, we created a vision that identifies tangible social outcomes where we believe we can make the greatest impact and how the assets and people of Northwestern Mutual can better achieve those outcomes.
The launch of our Childhood Cancer Program is a major way we’ve evolved our CSR efforts. Our program focuses on accelerating the search for a cure for childhood cancers and helping children and their families receive the assistance they need to fight this disease. Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of 15 in the U.S. Yet, less than five percent of the federal government’s budget for cancer research supports childhood cancer. Through our signature partners, Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and Starlight Children’s Foundation, we have donated more than $4.65 million, supporting more than 2,400 children and families, and funding 23,465 childhood cancer research hours.
We know that there is much more work to do. A 2013 study, commissioned by Northwestern Mutual, showed that 51 percent of childhood cancer researchers would like to dedicate more time to finding better treatments and cures for childhood cancer; however, nine out of 10 (91 percent) say lack of research funds is the top obstacle. This is a solvable issue and we are working every day to support cutting-edge research that will accelerate life-saving treatments and cures.
Supporting this cause also aligns with our brand and values, provides turn-key engagement opportunities for our financial representatives and offers measureable impacts to our reputation.
3p: Tell us about someone (mentor, sponsor, friend, hero) who affected your CSR journey, and how.
NL: I owe an incredible amount of gratitude to John Kordsmeier, the President of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, for my CSR journey. Previous to my current role, I worked for a decade in business improvement and strategic planning. Corporate philanthropy and sustainability were new areas for me. John had full faith in my abilities to help redefine the Foundation strategy and launch the Childhood Cancer Program. He embodies the spirit of giving back and fosters a collaborative environment that inspires others to achieve a greater good. He works diligently, personally and professionally to improve the lives of the families and communities we support. He’s truly an inspiration.
3p: What is the best advice you have ever received?
NL: To be authentic – this transcends both personally and professionally – if you’re not true to who you are as an individual or as a company, you’re not able to make the impact you’re seeking to achieve.
3p: Can you share a recent accomplishment you are especially proud of?
NL: The Childhood Cancer Program has provided me with many accomplishments to be proud of, but perhaps I’m most proud of seeing the vision of the Childhood Cancer Program take hold in real lives – children’s lives are being saved because they were able to travel to treatment because of the Northwestern Mutual Foundation’s support of Alex’s Lemonade Stand’s Travel Fund. Tens of thousands of families will receive a more comfortable treatment experience through the Northwestern Mutual Day Hospital at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. And with 88 percent of our offices nationwide participating in our program in just 18 months, the impact we can make for kids and families is exponential.
3p: If you had the power to make one major change at your company or in your industry, what would it be?
NL: Within every company, launching a new program is one challenge – communicating it to everyone across the company is entirely another. Trying to get everyone to join our cause and see the potential impact takes time and effort. We’ve made great strides in getting our employees and financial representatives to engage in our programs – but there is still so much to do to get even more people involved and understand the power of what we can accomplish together. I wish that we had the power to instantly get everyone in our company onboard and join us in our efforts.
3p: Describe your perfect day.
NL: I can find perfection in every day. Snuggling with and being a great mom to our children, engaging with incredible colleagues, and giving back to my community creates a demanding, hectic – and incredibly fulfilling – day.