Tech companies give it up for charity

Social and charitable endeavors wind up helping tech companies, which benefit from happier, more engaged employees.

Corporate giving is on the rise, and the tech industry is keeping pace. One big reason? It’s what the people want.

“More and more we’re realizing that people, stakeholders, new employees – they all care about the fact that the companies they work for have a purpose beyond making a profit,” says Kathy Mulvany, vice president of corporate affairs at Cisco.

Once reticent to boast about its social and charitable endeavors, Cisco is now more open about the work it’s doing. It’s especially of interest to the millennial generation, says Mulvany, whose responsibilities include helping to steward Cisco’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.

“To attract this new generation of talent, we need to show them that it isn’t just about making a big profit. It is about what we can do to help address the challenges the world faces, by bringing our core competencies as an IT company to bear on these challenges.”

U.S. corporations contributed an estimated $17.8 billion in charitable giving last year, an increase of 14% compared to the prior year, according to data from Giving USA. As a percentage of revenue, total giving averages 0.11% across the largest U.S. companies and is marginally higher (0.15%) among big companies in the tech industry, according to figures from the nonprofit group CECP.

Companies seem to be taking their cues from individuals: Americans gave $358 billion to charity in 2014, Giving USA estimates. Last year’s tally was up 7% compared to the prior year and marked the fifth year in a row that Americans increased their donations.

Cisco, in its 2015 fiscal year, delivered $286 million in cash and in-kind contributions to community programs through its corporate CSR initiatives and foundation work. Employees volunteered 155,600 hours, and 28% of that time was spent mentoring young people in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), according to Cisco’s just released 2015 CSR report. During the same time period, its Cisco Networking Academy program helped one million people acquire career-building skills.

The common thread throughout Cisco’s many CSR initiatives is tech. “We’re a technology company, so we’re looking at what role technology can play in addressing those issues that are important to us – education, economic empowerment, job creation, disaster response, and critical human needs [such as] food, water, and shelter,” Mulvany says.

“We think that it’s really important, that you are going to be most successful and most sustainable in these efforts when you apply your core competency to issues that are important to you.”

Start small

Not every vendor has the resources of a company like Cisco, but that doesn’t mean smaller companies can’t launch charitable programs.

"There's this idea that if you're in start-up mode, if you're not profitable, you can't start thinking about giving back. I don't think that's the right attitude; I think you can and you should,” says Meg Garlinghouse, head of LinkedIn for Good. In her role, Garlinghouse leads the social impact effort at LinkedIn, which includes not only the company’s internal charitable activities but also the programs designed to help LinkedIn’s 400 million members connect with nonprofit opportunities.

Today’s job seekers value – and expect – the opportunity to make a difference at work, Garlinghouse says. That’s a key reason to not delay the start of social and charitable programs. "You almost have to if you want to compete in the talent war," she says.

James Quigley didn’t wait to start a giving-back program, called Ante Up, after founding mobile app development company Canvas in 2008. “We wanted a culture, from the very beginning, that knows our role is bigger than just us making money,” Quigley says.

The Ante Up program encourages employees to pursue philanthropic efforts by providing paid time off and the tech resources needed to help a nonprofit. One Ante Up recipient is selected each year; the nominating employee’s commitment is key to the effort.

“The company will ante up the product, and we’ll even pay you and your travel expenses and give you the time off to go work with that not-for-profit for two weeks a year,” Quigley says. “But you have to ante up and really commit that you’re going to give them your time to make this work and treat them like a valuable customer.”

“We’ve made it very clear: It’s an investment. You have to commit to this organization, be passionate, and give them your time.”

One recent Ante Up recipient is Sabi Sand Wildtuin, a wildlife reserve area in South Africa. Canvas provided Sabi Sand with mobile devices and mobile app capabilities to more effectively track where animal poachers are breaking through boundary fences, log photos of killed or distressed animals, take photos of poachers’ tracks, and help with criminal prosecution of poachers. Canvas employees went on location to train the conservation office staff on how best to use the mobile apps.

The Ante Up program helps Canvas cultivate a quality that Quigley finds is missing in a lot of startups: empathy. “I think that empathy is the currency of innovation,” Quigley says. When there’s an inherent connection between the people who are building a product and the intended users of a product, innovation is boosted. But that’s not the norm at most businesses. The Ante up program helps foster a passion for helping, for solving problems with technology, that isn’t likely to occur naturally among Canvas employees.

“When we did this, we didn’t really know how it would turn out,” Quigley says. “The cool thing is that it has worked. Some of the best and wildest and most interesting and innovative ideas have come from those types of situations … from people who’ve ridden in the back of a Jeep, tracking rhino poachers in Africa.”

“When you do have amazing empathy for your customers or who you’re serving, that’s when the wild innovation happens.”

Unexpected benefits

At Level 3 Communications, CSR falls under the responsibility of Laurinda Pang, executive vice president and chief administrative officer. The CSR program has grown with the company, particularly over the last few years as Level 3 has formalized its efforts.

In the early years, Level 3 focused on giving employees paid time off to volunteer. "We wanted to support our employees, and we wanted to support the organizations that they love, but we couldn’t throw a ton of money at it, so we started small," Pang says.

Today Level 3 has a few distinct channels for its efforts. The company’s CSR initiatives are managed under a program called Level 3 Cares, which is largely about employee volunteerism. Employees receive paid time off to volunteer on their own or as part of a team -- more than 10,000 hours of volunteer time is donated by employees each year, the company estimates.

Over time, the program has grown to include Level 3 Gives, an employee-initiated grants program. Employees who volunteer can request grant dollars from Level 3 for the organizations with which they’re volunteering.

A new channel for giving is the Level 3 Foundation, which was just established in June. "The 5013c status allows us to take in-kind as well as financial contributions from people outside of the company. I think we can do a lot more good when more resources come in,” Pang says.

One big effort that’s underway is a community garden that Level 3 is building on land the company donated to its foundation. The City of Broomfield, Colo., where Level 3 is headquartered, approved the rezoning of the land, and the foundation is working with a number of outside supporters to design and construct the garden. Employees will care for specific garden plots, and half of the harvest will be donated to local community food shares. "It's the not-for-profit status of the foundation that allows us to engage with others outside of the employee base," Pang says.

Symantec, similarly, has grown its CRS efforts from a single grant back in 1999 to a comprehensive program that includes employee volunteerism, matching gifts, and the company’s signature CR initiative: the Symantec Cyber Career Connection, which provides underserved youth with cybersecurity education and training.

Today Symantec is focused on four primary philanthropic areas: STEM education, diversity, online safety, and the environment.

“We’ve gotten more focused in our giving,” says Jaime Barclay, corporate responsibility manager at Symantec. “When we originally started, there wasn’t much alignment. What we’ve developed over the years is how to tie our giving and our program in general back to our business more.”

Allowing employees to choose where they volunteer and to nominate grant recipients has helped increase participation at Level 3, Pang says. "This is not Level 3 going out and identifying its own organizations to support,” she says. “Our employees are the ones coming in saying, 'this is important to me. How can you as a business support me?’"

In turn, it’s paying unexpected dividends in employee engagement. "There's a new level of engagement that we would never have anticipated," Pang says.

It’s also helping Level 3 attract and retain employees – a valuable bonus at a time when hiring managers say it’s tough to find experienced talent and IT pros say they’re more willing to switch jobs for a better offer.

“There's a screaming need for new talent,” Pang says. Level 3 has multiple programs for attracting and cultivating technical talent. “The CSR angle is just one component, but it’s an important one.”

Canvas takes a similar approach, giving employees the opportunity to choose which organizations to support. “Instead of the company telling you, ‘hey, here are the not-for-profits we’re supporting, you get behind them,’ … we said, ‘you guys can choose a not-for-profit where this would make a big difference to them,’” Quigley says.

Canvas, too, finds being charitable has its own unintended rewards for the company. “We didn’t do it for press, or anything like that. But what we found was that it got us great employees,” Quigley says.

The Ante Up program also has attracted paying customers, who heard about Canvas through its charitable initiatives. “It’s still an ongoing experiment and a process, but it’s one we believe has had a return for us,” Quigley says.

Charitable from the start

Bruce Reading is a big proponent of giving back. "I was profoundly impacted by the concept of charity as a young person and I've carried it forward,” says Reading, who is CEO of VoltDB, an in-memory database company based in Bedford, Mass.

Being charitable is at the core of the company. "If you look at our five core beliefs, being charitable every day is number one. The reason that's there is not for us to do something for someone outside of the company, necessarily. It's to think charitably toward our fellow humans, and to be kind and generous and thoughtful about their needs," Reading says. “We try to live it every day, both internally in the way we treat one another and externally in how we behave in the community."

VoltDB’s employees are encouraged take one day each quarter, with full pay, to work on their charitable passion. The company also organizes quarterly activities that the entire company can join.

Recently VoltDB employees had a chance to work with Habitat for Humanity to help convert an old convent into apartments for people in need. "We were in pounding nails and building walls and pouring concrete, and really getting our hands dirty doing something completely different than writing software and all the things we do every day,” Reading says. “We had such a good time. It was so fulfilling. It's a great team-building exercise."

For a small company, it’s no small investment to give away employees’ time each quarter. But Reading has no doubt the benefits outweigh the costs.

"If I were to think about the P&L impact of this, it's significant given the size and scope of our company if you broke it down to the 100-plus man-days a quarter that we're paying for that we're not getting production out of. But quite frankly, it's a very small price to pay when you understand the benefits derived as a company, as an organization. The actual hard-dollar cost is a fraction of the benefit we receive."

VoltDB’s charity and community work has gotten attention – though not on purpose. "We're not looking for any recognition at all,” Reading says, but "we've had people come to us because of the work that we’ve done in the community. We have not had a recruiting issue at all, and I firmly believe a key part of that is the way we behave as an organization around our belief in charity."


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

The 10 most powerful companies in enterprise networking 2022