Chapter 2: Scout it Out

I guess you could say that I was always drawn to charitable causes and helping others. I credit my mother and grandmother with my passion for community service, as they were always putting the needs of others before their own. My mother, Jane, has always been a very giving person. I remember many times as a child hearing her say that you should perform random acts of kindness and lend a hand to those who need it most. My grandmother, Angelina, was a very religious woman. A Roman Catholic by birth, she attended Sunday mass every week and would spend most of her days reciting the rosary.

One of the fondest memories I have of my “Nonna” was when I found her reciting her prayers one day in her apartment. I asked her why she was always praying, because it seemed to me that she was never without her rosary beads. I remember joking with her that if she couldn’t get into Heaven with all the praying she’d done over the years, then surely there was no hope for the rest of us. She replied, “I’m not praying for myself, I’m praying for our family.” When I asked why, she said, “I know how busy everyone is with work and life, and that you may not have the time to pray. So I am doing it for you.” My grandmother passed away in 1993, and those words still resonate with me today. To me, it’s the perfect example of selflessness. That she would spend her entire day praying for the benefit of others and not herself amazed me.

Fast forward to 2004. I had been at my company for eight years. While we had always been a giving organization, our philanthropy was focused mainly on making charitable donations to a number of local nonprofits. Most of our donations were made out of our corporate HQ. The leadership in our other locations oversaw charity donations to their local nonprofits, but no one owned the overall effort, and there wasn’t a strategy or plan around it.

In the midst of this donation program, a small group of employees at our HQ was taking it upon themselves to coordinate events aimed at boosting employee morale. One day, the Senior VP of Human Resources, who was my manager at the time, asked us in a staff meeting if anyone would be interested in representing HR on this volunteer team. I raised my hand and with that became the HR representative. When I joined the team, I learned that in addition to employee-morale events, the group also coordinated employee participation in a few charity walks from time to time. I went to one and observed that the employees who showed up really seemed to enjoy participating. There was a sense of teamwork and pride in representing the company at this event, however small the group was. So it got me thinking about all the great things we could be doing if we had a plan, a strategy, a full-blown program, and most important—a dedicated staff and budget for workplace giving.

I started to think about not just giving to but partnering with nonprofits to make an impact and help solve social issues. This, in turn, would create opportunities for skill development for our employees via volunteerism, raise the visibility of our brand, build our teams, increase engagement, and attract the talent we wanted. The best part, and what excited me most the more I thought about it, was that we’d be helping many other people in the process. I was all for that.

I knew I needed to develop a plan and that I would need the support of senior leadership. As a first step, I’d need to present my idea to my manager to get her support. But before I could do any of that, I had to prepare a compelling argument that the program I envisioned was a win-win for our company. To do that, I had to get a stronger sense of the company landscape: What did I already have going for me, and what potential challenges could I anticipate?  

The Scout Motto: Why, Why, Why

Now you might be thinking, “I know my company inside and out. I work there, don’t I?” How well do you know your company’s purpose, its reason for existing? Knowing your company is more than just knowing what types of products you manufacture or sell, or what kind of services you offer, or the benefit plan your employees receive. What you need to know are your organization’s goals and objectives. You must understand your corporate culture, and why your company does what it does. In Start with Why, Simon Sinek talks about how leaders should look at their “why” first when developing their corporate strategy. The same holds true for your corporate giving or CSR strategy. Start with your company’s “why” and build from there.

The reason it’s so important to begin with understanding your company’s purpose is because your program’s goals and objectives will need to be aligned with your company’s goals in order for you to create measurable and sustainable impact in your community and in order to successfully gain your leadership’s buy-in for your plan. Leadership’s support is critical. No matter how perfect your plan, it will never get off the ground without the backing of your executives. You’ll also want them to be actively involved in supporting company-sponsored events, volunteer efforts, and fundraisers. Executive support and participation is critical in motivating your employees to get involved. The best way to get their support is to tie your workplace giving or CSR program to your company’s strategy.

Speaking of leadership, you should take the time to get to know the decision makers at your company if you don’t know them already. What is their leadership style? Are they receptive to new ideas? What do they think about charitable causes and community service? It’s time to start these conversations and ask questions. Think of it as a fact-finding mission to gather intel you’ll use to create and deliver a watertight proposal to your leaders.

In A Curious Mind by Brian Grazer, he talks about informal interviews he’s done with people throughout his career. He calls them “curiosity conversations.” He credits these conversations with inspiring some great ideas for movies and TV shows, as well as with helping him make some important personal decisions. Schedule some “curiosity conversations” with your key leaders. These are the influencers in your organization; those who make the decisions on strategy and funding. Get to know what their priorities are. It will help you gauge how receptive they’ll be to your plan, then adjust accordingly. You’ll approach these conversations in different ways, depending on your role and position within your company.

Ask and Ye Shall Receive, Then Ask Some More

When I went on my fact-finding mission, I was working in Human Resources in the Learning and Development department. As such, I had access to leaders across the organization who were able to provide me with a lot of the information I needed. If you’re in an HR leadership role, you’ll be able to tap your senior leaders for their input and for the data you need. If you’re not in Human Resources, a good place to start having a conversation about starting a charitable giving program would be with your HR leaders. First find out what, if anything, your company is currently doing on the philanthropy front.

Some questions you might ask your HR executive are:

  • Do we currently support any charitable causes?
  • Do we have a matching-gifts program?
  • Are employees able to volunteer on company time?

If the answers to any of these questions are yes, then probe some more and get details. The more details you have, the better. This information will help you determine where your focus should be as you develop your strategy. If an HR executive answers no to some or all of your questions, ask the following:

  • Has the company considered having a formal charitable giving program?
  • Are there plans to develop a volunteer program in the future?
  • May employees suggest charities for the company to donate to?

The answers to these questions will help you gauge receptiveness to the idea of a workplace charitable giving program. If nothing else, it will let you know how much convincing you’ll need to do.

Your colleagues are another excellent resource, and knowing what they think will help you build your case. As we mentioned in the previous chapter, the feeling of being a part of something bigger and doing meaningful work is a key driver of engagement. Charitable giving and CSR help strengthen the connection between an employee and their company. So you’ll definitely want to include employee feedback as part of your argument for a charitable giving program. It will also help you determine the type of program that would be best received by employees.

Once your program launches, you’ll need supporters, and showing your peers that you value their thoughts and opinions will help create that support team. Those supporters will play a key role throughout your process from program launch to embedding giving into your company culture. Tell a group of your peers about your idea and ask them if you can pick their brains a bit. If your company is already doing some charitable giving, ask:

  • What do you think about our charitable giving program?
  • If we had the opportunity to volunteer, would you be interested?
  • Is there a cause you are especially passionate about?
  • What problem in our community today do you feel needs the most attention?
  • In what ways do you think our company can help solve this problem?

If your company isn’t doing much on the philanthropy front, or if you don’t have any giving program at all, then ask:

  • How important is it to you that a company gives back to the community?
  • Have you worked at other companies with charitable giving or CSR programs? What did you like or dislike about them?

It was through conversations and asking questions that I learned my company was already making donations to charities, but that we had an opportunity to make a greater impact simply by aligning our efforts across our locations. I also learned more about the history of the small team of employee volunteers I had joined. The concept of this team was great, but without a clearly defined mission, plan, and purpose—not to mention a budget—they were very limited in what they could do. I made a note to build the team into my plan, with the intention of expanding it and its role within the organization.

About budgets: If you’re not in a management or HR position that will give you access to budget information, then simply asking if there is a budget dedicated to charitable donations in your company is a good start. A finance leader may not be able to share actual dollar figures with you, but they can confirm whether or not your company has a charitable giving budget set aside. 

Begin at the Beginning: If you’re starting your program from scratch (which is where I was starting from), you’ll probably want to hold off on going the full CSR route as that would be like going from a bicycle to a Ferrari, and it’s likely to get nixed by your leaders. Instead, start small. Identify the resources you already have at your disposal, and build from there. The big splashes will come later. Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you want leadership to buy into your idea, you have to show that it’s doable, and more important, that it’s doable without breaking the bank. Remember, we’re going for a million dollars’ worth of positive, impactful change without having to actually spend a million dollars to achieve it!

At my company, I wanted to build on our existing foundation of involvement by introducing a volunteer program, cause work via partnerships with nonprofit organizations, a formal grant-writing process, and a dedicated staff and department to oversee it all. Of all the things on my list, I knew the hardest sell would be the last one—creating a department with a dedicated, full-time staff to oversee our activities. It would probably mean adding to our head count, and that would cost money. Or would it? I started thinking about which internal resources we could tap in the event that we didn’t get approval to hire staff, and I built that into my plan. (I’ll focus more on resources in chapter 5, “Go Fund Me!”)

By asking questions and having conversations, I was able to gather a lot of information on my company’s position when it came to charitable giving. I learned that we believed in supporting our community and it was one of our core values. I learned that this dated back to our founder and his desire to do great things for the world by giving back to the communities where we live and work. I learned that our founder was very philanthropic in his personal life, which supported my argument for creating a formal giving program at the company. As it turned out, my “curiosity conversations” proved essential in helping me discover what I had going for me, and what I was going to need to work hard to overcome to earn buy-in from leadership. Working in my favor: our legacy of giving back, and the fact that we were already giving to some charities. And then the hurdles: We had no dedicated budget for charitable giving, no formal program or process, and the perception that we would need to invest a lot of money to do it the “right way.” Those were a lot of hurdles, for sure; but knowing this helped me to really focus on which areas I’d need to back up with data to make a compelling argument.

If you discover your company isn’t doing anything on the charitable front, or that the extent of their giving program is limited, you’re going to have a little more to do in the way of convincing your leadership to buy into your idea. You’ll need to rely heavily on research, case studies, and best practices companies with established programs follow.

Casing Case Studies

Part of my fact-finding mission involved interviewing companies with established charitable giving or CSR programs, specifically, those I’d describe as best in class. Even though I had the advantage of working for a company that was already at its core a supporter of “giving back,” I was proposing something much more complex that would require an investment of time, resources, and, yes, money to establish. Whether you have the advantage of working for a caring company or not, you need to include data as part of your proposal. Don’t just quote statistics from articles and reports. Actual case studies must be a part of your presentation. Talk to companies who have programs in place and find out what makes their program work, the impact they’ve had on their culture and their people, the benefits they’ve seen from having a charitable giving or a CSR program, and what you need to look out for. In the next chapter, we’ll go through some sample questions. You should include a variety of companies on your list of interview candidates. I interviewed companies both in my industry and outside my industry, smaller and larger. You should aim to have at least five companies on your interview list.

Key takeaways from this chapter:

  • Learn your company’s “why”
  •  Get to know influencers and talk to peers
  • Interview companies with “best in class” giving programs
  • It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Case Study: Turning Business into a Force for Good: Causely’s Mission

Causely is a Kentucky-based company that offers social media marketing for small businesses—with one major difference. Every social media check-in to a client by one of their customers triggers a donation from Causely to a charity. The client promotes their favorite charity with tools that Causely provides, allowing a client to differentiate themselves from competitors with their concern for a social issue.

Each month, donations go out to different charities, and the results have been incredible. Causely’s 2016 giving included funding for over 21,017 winter coats and 38,263 pairs of shoes through Soles4Souls, more than 282,000 minutes of autism therapy through The Autism Site, and 245 sight-restoring surgeries through Watsi. Causely’s website lists each of the organizations benefiting from their giving by month on a “Wall of Giving.”

Another way that Causely gives back is through their #OneMore Movement. Visitors are invited to sign up for their blog and to join a movement within seconds of landing on their page, and their invitations are very inviting indeed. For each person who joins, Causely donates a meal to a child through feedONE.

Causely’s perspective on philanthropy goes beyond financial commitments but well into participation and volunteerism. Their take on volunteerism is to cast it in historic terms, to call it a movement.

I love what Causely does for two reasons: One, I admire their innovative use of social media to make a difference. They’ve tapped into social platforms’ potential for uniting people behind a cause. Two, they engage their clients in giving back while at the same time raising awareness about the untapped potential of the business community to change the world.

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