The Evolution of Collaborative Corporate Giving & CSR

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By Jarrett O’Brien

We were fortunate to spend a night this summer with experts in corporate social responsibility (CSR), nonprofit partners, and over 100 people who came to our event hosted by Zendesk. The theme was corporate culture and community impact, which focused on the role companies play in partnering with nonprofits to engage in collaborative giving, and the impact that has on employees and society at large.

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Presentations, a panel moderated by TriplePundit’s Nick Aster, and conversations with nonprofits orbited around a few shifts in thinking which, if more companies followed, could leave an enormous ripple of social impact in our communities.

Bake giving into core business strategy

Tiffany Apczynski of Zendesk influenced the title when she said CSR “used to be the icing, but now it’s the batter.” Erika Balbuena of Twilio also talked about the evolution in strategy. “Traditionally [CSR] didn’t need to align to core business needs or product. Now the consumer is demanding different, our employees are demanding different, and we are being proactive and expecting better of ourselves as companies.” Twilio’s program was spurred from requests from the nonprofit community to donate its core product and expertise, which morphed into the company’s mission to send “a billion messages for good” through nonprofit use of its communications platform.

There has been a movement from these programs being an ancillary employee benefit to a core business strategy. The major takeaway was that the most successful programs with the largest impact strategically align social impact with their core competencies and weave it into their company culture.

Gain purpose through perspective

In the past a leader would set the vision for a corporate giving program, or it grew organically bottom up from the employee’s interests. However, today companies are balancing the needs of all stakeholders internally and externally to find their focus. Joan Scott of Dolby spoke about this shift in getting to the heart of your what your program’s mission should be. “We looked at what employees’ interests were, what aligned well with the business, and what real community needs are … then it’s pretty basic as you look at the circles and see where they crossover.”

So, like a Venn diagram for good, Scott balances Dolby’s goals and employee interests in conjunction with their community. The company’s mission grew out of this analysis to inspire the next generation in science and art, as well as address critical community needs, which brings us to the next theme.

Build mutually meaningful partnerships

In the old approach, companies proposed a partnership based on what they wanted to do, versus asking about nonprofit and community needs. Leah Laxamana talked about how Twitter approaches finding partners for its program. “Listen and respond. The NeighborNest came about because we identified a need in the community. One of the biggest pieces of feedback from the focus groups we did with the families and homeless shelters was, thank you for involving us in this thinking and design process.” The NeighborNest is a collaboration between Twitter and multiple nonprofits as a technology and learning space focused on helping low-income families, even providing child care.

The future of looking for nonprofit partners is no different than finding your next business partner for sales or innovation. Assessment and alignment around needs, resources, value and shared vision should be evaluated to achieve the greatest impact.

Crowdsource innovative experiences

We live in an experience economy and philanthropy is one of the most meaningful forms of engagement for your employees. Diane Solinger of Google understands this better than anyone, owning employee engagement for over 60,000 people, and she shared her teams point of view. “It’s about enabling and empowering Googlers to use their skills, talents and resources to have an extraordinary impact on themselves and the world. We’re looking for transformative experiences for them to increase their connection to each other through volunteering and charitable giving to create a sense of community, to enrich our culture, and to develop their skills and leadership capacity through our tool kit.”

We all have different interests, causes we care about, and levels of maturity when it comes to giving. Creating a “tool kit” and share templates enables your employees to crowdsource and sustain the program themselves, while providing transparency about their needs, passions and purpose.

Sustain and share impact

A program’s mission is to create greater social impact in conjunction with organizational value, however sustaining and making strategic decisions requires direction and measurement. Apczynski talked about how her team at Zendesk accomplishes this. “We can measure how happy our employees are after every single volunteer activity … We look at brand and if people are responding to our brand and CSR is a piece of that, so we’ve devised our own metrics.” Apczynski also spoke about the value to revenue, citing statistics like “90 percent of consumers are more likely to switch brands if they find one associated with a good cause.”

Studies and reports are coming out all of the time supporting investment in corporate giving and employee engagement. Bigger companies are beings asked for ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting like any other data. Those numbers in combination with human stories of impact become content you can share that creates awareness for nonprofits and compels other companies that don’t have programs. Not to mention it attracts consumers, employees and investors to your brand.

In summary

Here’s a bit of advice on where to start from those who have been down your path before. Scott shared: “I would find a champion who has some clout within the company. It doesn’t have to be C-level or the top, but someone who can help you navigate and get a core of folks together to work with you and get some of those people to support you.” And Apczynski  followed up: “Go rogue. If there are six people on your team, go to Glide and sign up for a volunteering shift. You can’t stop the snowball.”

Our organization ThinkThank is always happy to help build that initial snowball of a CSR program with you. We want to also give a huge thank-you to everyone that made that night happen: the speakers, Zendesk for the space, and TriplePundit for moderating the panel. But additionally Google for matching Handup gift cards worth $2,500 for those experiencing homelessness, the nonprofits that shared their stories, and all of our wonderful volunteers.

Jarrett O’Brien is the Co-founder of ThinkThank.

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