Today business is about more than just making products or money. It’s about making a difference. So Fast Company invited 19 business leaders to share their insights on giving back to the community. Their stories reveal areas in which people are contributing today education, technology, environment, health, community development as well as shared beliefs about the new philanthropy: Giving time is more important than just giving money. Personal commitment matters more than corporate involvement. And action, as always, counts for more than mere words.
The Brainerd Foundation
There’s an emerging generation of social entrepreneurs who are not satisfied with blank-check charity. They want to make a difference but they don’t know how to get started. I began Social Venture Partners to teach people how to give back strategically. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
Start now. Some people think that the time for philanthropic pursuits is late in life. But the best time to give back to the community is while you’re young. Focus your energy on things you care about. Learn how to leverage your passion and creativity.
Grow the grass roots. The people with new ideas are at the grassroots level. They’re also the ones who need the most help. Large national organizations like the Sierra Club tend to get most of the support. But the real battles are waged by people who want to make a difference in their own backyards.
Think like a venture capitalist. Invite proposals from groups, meet with them, and then pick groups to form partnerships with. Your expertise can help them create a plan of action something like a business plan to refine their strategy. The problems that come with giving back can be just as challenging as business problems. And solving them can be much more satisfying.
Paul Brainerd, known as the father of desktop publishing, started The Brainerd Foundation in 1995 to support grassroots environmental projects. Before embarking on a full-time philanthropic career, Brainerd was the founder of Aldus Corp., which merged with Adobe Systems in 1994.
Action Without Borders
New York, New York
Sixteen years ago, as a young paratrooper in the Israeli army during the Lebanese War, I spent several months on the Syrian border. I realized that my platoon was made up of two types: “good guys,” who would give you their last pair of dry socks if you needed it; and “other guys,” whom you learned to avoid. While watching the Syrian soldiers, I figured that there must be a similar division on their side.
I started to daydream a little: Why didn’t the good guys on both sides get together instead of fighting each other? Years later these thoughts led me to form Action Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that uses the Web to link volunteers and groups all over the world. The Web has drastically improved our ability to give back and to get involved.
Even the smallest companies and the busiest people can make a big difference with very little effort. Start by changing your perspective. Recognize that your company has a lot to offer whatever its size. The challenge is to find a way to employ your resources creatively.
Use the Web to help small organizations: add a link from your Web site to theirs; if they don’t have a Web site, help them create one. Donate your used, working computers. Offer to share your management and marketing experience. And yes, giving money always helps.
In his for-profit life, Ami Dar is president of the North American subsidiary of Aladdin Knowledge Systems an Israeli company that supplies tools for software developers.
Vice President, Human Resources
Oxford Health Plans Inc.
Too often, corporate giving boils down to large contributions that mean nothing to the employees. Our challenge was to make our HumanCare Corps a program in which employees could decide whether, where, when, and how often to volunteer. If a program isn’t theirs, it won’t work. We’ve also learned a lot about making a corporate volunteer program succeed.
All giving is local and individual. HumanCare Corps is an individual commitment, not a company program. We promote a spirit of giving and offer financial support to individual initiatives. But we also depend on local team leaders to keep the volunteer spirit alive and on people’s radar screens.
Let your policy follow your workers. Our giving follows our employees’ efforts. For example, take someone who’s working in a domestic-violence counseling center and needs money for an initiative. Because the person is donating time, we’ll donate money. Focused giving tied to employee volunteer efforts makes a difference.
Don’t overengineer. Give people a lot of latitude. Make it clear that the company is willing to support any initiative, but don’t make lots of rules.
You can’t mandate a corporate giving-back program. But you can develop a supportive structure that connects people in your company with the community.
Jeanne Wisniewski makes sure that HumanCare Corps stays on everyone’s radar screen. Before joining Oxford, she worked for JFK Health Systems in Edison, New Jersey.
Partner and CEO
Sao Paulo, Brazil
For me, the way to start giving back is to reexamine the idea of “giving back.” The phrase implies that, as businesspeople and as companies, we should take first and then give back later. I believe that the purpose of life is to serve others and that goes for companies as well as individuals.
At Amana-Key, we’ve launched a number of initiatives: a program to open our offices to 300 teenagers, offering seminars on skills they’ll need in the future; a program to adopt a school, providing books, art supplies, and clothing for the children; a program to adopt a community, giving free lunches to needy kids.
These programs were easy to start because of the way we think about giving back. Our first rule is, Just give don’t expect anything in return. Follow your intuition and act quickly.
When we adopted a school, there was no feasibility study just an immediate commitment to act. Don’t criticize others for what they do or don’t do. Be strategic in the ways you seek to involve them without judging their motives. And don’t view giving back as secondary to the rest of your business or your life.
The question we ask at our organization is, Are we here just to meet the needs of a ‘market’ or are we here to serve the needs of society?
Oscar Motomura is one of Brazil’s most innovative educators. His organization creates “knowledge products” for senior executives and middle managers, with the goal of fostering more thoughtful corporate leadership.
Philadelphia Business Journal
Appearance matters in business. So it’s a problem when you have the skills to do a job but not the money needed to “look the part.” That’s why I cofounded The Working Wardrobe, a nonprofit organization that provides interview clothing to disadvantaged women who have completed training programs and are actively looking for work. When our clients find jobs, we invite them back to receive two or three more outfits to build their wardrobes.
Our mission is not really to distribute clothes, of course. It’s to enhance the marketability of low-income women who seek self-sufficiency. We help bridge the gap between training programs and employment.
The Working Wardrobe opened its doors in December 1995. We hoped that in our first three years, we’d be able to serve 1,600 women. In fact, in less than two years, we’ve outfitted 1,849 women689 of whom have landed jobs, 347 of whom have come back for more clothes.
The contacts I’ve made in ad sales were major factors in getting this group off the ground. They helped me do everything from making pitches for office space to contacting clothing manufacturers to persuading IBM to donate computers. The assets you take for granted your basic job skills can be your best resources for getting things done outside the job.
Abby Siegel was named Philadelphia Business Journal Salesperson of the Year in 1996. She was also designated a Newspaper Advertising All-Star by the Philadelphia Ad Club in 1997.
Special Agent in Charge,
Major Events Division
U.S. Secret Service
There’s more to growing as a person than growing on the job. You can’t become a better parent or a better citizen unless you take action. Do you want to improve education? Then pick up the phone and arrange a meeting at a local school. Once you take that first step, you realize that other people are counting on you, and things almost always fall into place.
Four years ago the special agent in charge of the Presidential Protective Division came up with the idea of adopting the Kramer Middle School in Washington, DC. Then he acted: he got in touch with the principal, and he presented the idea to President Clinton as a Christmas gift. I inherited responsibility for the project in 1995 and passed that role onto someone else this past fall.
Already you can see the difference we’ve made in the school. When the kids walk in, they see a big fish tank that we provided. They use 15 computers that we donated this past spring. We take the kids on field trips to our headquarters. We have a basketball team that plays the school’s team once a year. (Our record since 1993: two wins, two losses.)
It might sound simple, but my philosophy on giving back starts with something my father used to tell me: “When you leave a room, make sure it’s a little neater than you found it.” That’s what volunteering is trying to leave society a little better than you found it.
Thomas Sloan has served as a volunteer at a New Jersey hospice and is a 22-year veteran of the Secret Service.
Founder and CEO
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
I once attended a conference with hundreds of successful, socially responsible entrepreneurs. I came back from it all fired up and ordered our contractors to use only responsibly harvested wood in our new offices. I initiated a sweeping program to donate 5% of our billable hours to other organizations. I also announced that we would all join the Literacy Volunteers.
Five years later we have yet to teach anyone to read. If there’s any responsibly harvested wood in my building, it’s there by accident. And the only billable time we gave away went toward two small programs in the first year. From these experiences (I never call them mistakes), I’ve learned a few lessons about giving back.
You can’t “impose” giving back. I was instantly inspired, but that didn’t mean everyone else would be. Literacy Volunteers is a great organization, but it demands time and commitment. Our young, 18-hour-a-day company was short on both.
Inspire, don’t command. Now I use my bully pulpit within the company to encourage employees to use paid volunteer time (16 hours a year) to help the cause of their choice. They also use our email system to solicit other volunteers doing far more good in the community than our earlier efforts ever did.
Before starting her own business, Katharine Paine was Lotus Development Corp.’s director of corporate communications. She is a member of Businesses for Social Responsibility and Social Ventures Network.
Austin Design Group
San Diego, California
It’s easy to get wrapped up in the frenzy of surviving and forget about thriving. But if you understand that you have more than your money to give, you can make a big difference. It’s wired into us: we feel good when we do something good for someone else.
I got involved in Homes of Hope and donated $2,500 to that effort. I went to Tijuana, Mexico with several associates to build houses for people living in shelters made of driftwood and cardboard. We built one house for a single mother with four kids. I’ll never forget the look on her face when we gave her the key to her own house.
Bringing together your money, time, and expertise can be a very effective and very satisfying way to give back.
Doug Austin is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization. In 1990 he was elevated to the AIA’s College of Fellows for his contributions in architecture.
Palo Alto, California
In 1996, when I was at Sun Microsystems, I helped organize NetDay. More than 50,000 people gave up a Saturday to wire 3,500 schools throughout California creating $50 million in value. Time became money.
That experience changed my life. I realized that if I leveraged the Web to help thousands of people donate their time, I would give back a phenomenal amount of value. So I cofounded Volunteer America, which merged with Impact Online in October 1996. The goal of Volunteer America: to match nonprofit organizations that need volunteers with people looking for volunteer opportunities. I now spend all my time on this startup.
The word “startup” is important. Impact Online is a nonprofit but we think like a for-profit startup. We have a business plan. We’ve raised money from venture capitalists. We want to create a thriving business that perpetually gives back by creating a Web-based infrastructure that enables other people to give back.
As a marketing manager at Sun Microsystems, Jay Backstrand was responsible for the commercialization of advanced technology.
director, Socially Responsible Banking Fund, Vermont National Bank
I can’t always define community development. But I know it when I see it. For example, a woman and her husband had a small farm with about 300 goats. One evening last year, their hired hand quit. Three days later the husband died. The couple had usually sold their milk to Vermont Butter & Cheese. The head of that company called and said that we had until Monday to help the woman. I called one of our depositors, who put up $30,000 at 0% interest. We loaned that money to the cheese company at 0% interest, and the company loaned it to some local farmers, who bought the woman’s goats. Now that’s community development.
We try to function as though we live next door to everybody in our community. We’re not reinventing banking we’re uninventing it. We make smaller loans, but they have a high community impact. And we’re outperforming other banks.
David Berge’s Socially Responsible Banking Fund enables customers to earmark deposits for loans that will make a direct impact on the community. Depositors have placed $155 million into the fund since its inception.
Founder and President
White Dog Cafe
A while ago I spoke at a seminar on philanthropy. The speaker before me, a Philadelphia city councilman, offered this advice: “Before you can do good, you must do well.” I disagree by doing good, we can also do well.
You can’t separate your social goals from your business. Figure out what turns you on, and then design part of your work around it. When I started the White Dog Cafe, I was trying to make a living. But I also realized that restaurants can build communities: when people gather at our place, they can do more than just eat. Social change isn’t about heroic gestures. It happens gradually and with the help of many people.
Judy Wicks’s White Dog Cafe is a major center of community involvement in Philadelphia. In 1995 Wicks won a Business Enterprise Trust award for creative leadership in combining business management with social vision.
The Morino Institute
At age 49 I “retired” from business. Since then I’ve pursued a second career: trying to make long-term, concrete differences in people’s lives. Our institute’s biggest challenge is to leverage our actions using resources that might seem small when compared with those of other foundations. We don’t donate money we donate people and their expertise. Starting the institute was like starting any business endeavor, and I learned quite a bit.
Unfocus your focus. Learn from people outside the corporate world. With no structured goal, my partner and I spent a year talking to more than 700 people. We thumbed through our Rolodexes and even scanned the phone book. On a typical day we would meet with a congressman, a nonprofit director, a clergyman, a company president, and a community services representative. We had nothing to sell we just wanted advice. This “unfocus” helped us focus our strategy and mission.
Support leaders, not programs. To make a difference, find people who already know how to make a difference. We work with people who know how to collaborate, cooperate, and leverage their own assets. We’re not interested in taking control; we’re interested in advising and providing contacts.
Blend business and personal skills. Your business sense can help you determine whether a project is technically or financially feasible. But your personal involvement can help you judge whether the right person is behind the project.
I’ve never been a fan of simple check-writing. Contributing your business skills, your perspective, and a little sweat is much more valuable and, yes, gratifying.
Mario Morino cofounded Legent Corp., one of the largest software companies in the world. It was acquired by Computer Associates International in 1995 for $1.7 billion.
Founder and President
Camelot Career College
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
I spent more than a decade at Exxon, rising to become an operations supervisor in a plastics plant. I learned a lot as I moved up the ladder; I’d come a long way. I was one of six children born to a single mother on government assistance. And I wanted to give back. So I started a volunteer service to teach young people “success” techniques.
But I realized that something deeper was missing: basic job and career skills. In 1986 I received a $47,000 grant to train 20 people. The next year I left Exxon to devote myself full-time to what became Camelot Career College. Since then we’ve placed thousands of people in the job market. Our current enrollment is 400 students85% of them women and we have a staff of 70.
Small steps can achieve big results. When you involve others, they become inspired. Their inspiration doubles back on you, and the energy just starts to grow.
Ronnie Williams is a member of the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce and of the Mt. Zion Men Mentoring Program.
Senior Vice President of A&R
Rhino Records Inc.
Los Angeles, California
I’d worked for more than five years to make social responsibility a part of our company. Then the 1992 Los Angeles riots changed our approach to community service.
We still support organizations that provide food, clothing, shelter, and legal advice. But now we also get involved with issues of social and economic justice. Why just give money to homeless shelters and food pantries when you can have a greater impact by supporting community-based initiatives for affordable housing, renter rights, and livable wages? In launching any program, keep a few things in mind.
Get support from the top. If your Head Monarch isn’t visibly behind the program, it won’t work. Executive involvement sends a signal that giving back is a pervasive value.
Don’t just add on. Be realistic. A giving-back initiative will always take resources away from other activities. Be prepared to commit those resources.
Find passionate people. SERT is our Social and Environmental Responsibility Team. Members take responsibility for specific activities. If they didn’t, nothing would get done.
Gary Stewart began working at Rhino in 1977 as a clerk in the company’s original retail store. He now supervises the signing of all new artists and oversees the label’s historical reissues.
I left Microsoft because I was tired. After a few years of “retirement,” I looked up and saw Seattle’s historic 1928 Paramount Theatre. It was shabby but beautiful. I realized that restoring it would be a perfect way to give back, since the theater brings people together. But the process wasn’t easy.
The most important word in “nonprofit business” is “business.” The best thing, I’ve learned, is to enter a project with illusions. If you know how hard it’ll be, you might never start. Let your dreams get you through the hard part.
Ida Cole’s Paramount Theatre raised more than $3 million for the Seattle community last year.
VP, Corporate Business Development
Santa Clara, California
The greatest contribution you can make is your time. Busy and successful people convince themselves that what they’re doing is incredibly important: I’m creating jobs that’s great for society. They say: “I’m making money now. Someday I’ll give it away.” Sometimes it’s true. Often it’s not. What matters is now.
The best way for me to give is to extend my business expertise: networking, strategic planning, recruiting, and fund-raising. My greatest challenge is to resist other demands on my time and energy. I’ve learned to focus my efforts. I see my involvement as long-term almost like another career.
I serve as chair of Plugged Ina nonprofit organization in East Palo Alto. We have a community center, with programs aimed primarily at kids. We also teach courses, and we have started several team-based businesses. We received a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to provide Internet service and email access throughout the area. I see technology as a way to provide opportunities for everyone in this community.
At Intel, Avram Miller develops new business initiatives. Plugged In http://www.pluggedin.org is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that brings multimedia technology to low-income communities.
Cochairman and President
Aim High Inc.
If you’re looking for a hands-on, high-yield way to give back, I suggest mentoring. I’ve mentored two young men — David in Newark and Felton in South Central Los Angeles and I can’t think of a more valuable way to make a difference.
Over the years, I’ve helped each of them get through high school and into college. I’ve discussed everything with them from school and family relationships to summer internships to college applications. I took Felton on his college interviews, and now he’s a freshman at Williams College my alma mater. And David now works at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This experience changed my life. And I saw how mentoring could be applied on a larger scale.
While I was at Microsoft, I saw the growing number of talented people who were hungry for ways to give back. Unfortunately, they had little access to programs that were equally hungry for their expertise. Why wasn’t there a mentoring network to match skilled volunteers with the appropriate organizations? The dots were all there. They just needed to be connected.
So this past spring, when my partner and I left Microsoft to start our own business, we created a charitable arm of our company to help fill this need. We’re building a network to connect technically oriented volunteers with charitable organizations. Like SWAT teams, these groups will offer technical mentoring assistance for projects like building and enhancing Web sites and providing database management.
No matter how you slice it, mentoring works. You have a profound impact on another person. And you get to know yourself much better too.
Chuck Hirsch was the group product planner of Microsoft’s Dare to Dream Group. Its first product is ActiMates Interactive Barney.
Founder, Making Opportunities for Upgrading Schools and Education (MOUSE)
New York, New York
If you can adopt a highway, why not a school? I live just down the block from Washington Irving High School. It’s a typical failing urban school. Local businesses have always been involved in it, but I wanted to do more.
Then I heard about NetDay the effort to connect schools to the Internet. My immediate reaction was that Washington Irving should get involved. I turned to Silicon Alley, and in a short time we had more than 300 volunteers to help on NetDay.
But after NetDay was over, the teachers and students had no support or training. That’s when a lightbulb went on and MOUSE was formed. We’re creating a volunteer corps to help wire schools, maintain equipment, and train teachers and students on an ongoing basis. I’m working on a business plan to establish MOUSE in other cities. That kind of human network has incredible value. The warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment is great. But this kind of strategic philanthropy is much more lasting.
Andrew Rasiej helped restore New York’s Irving Plaza, an old vaudeville theater, and has been a real estate consultant to nonprofit groups.
Anthony Sansone Jr.
Sansone Group Inc.
St. Louis, Missouri
For years I sent checks to the Special Olympics and other associations for the disabled. Then it struck me that I was taking the easy way out. I didn’t see any direct results, and I didn’t feel personally involved. My family loves ice hockey, so we formed the Gateway Locomotives: a hockey team made up of disabled youths.
When I first solicited various organizations for their support, I didn’t get the response that I was hoping for. But that just motivated me further. Over time we won the support of many volunteers, and with about 20 National Hockey League players, 100 instructors, and more than 200 participating players, we’ve formed Special Hockey International.
We’ve developed Special Hockey teams throughout Canada and the United States. But we’re not stopping yet! Our goal is to have teams in all 26 National Hockey League cities. More important, we want the Special Olympics organization to sanction our sport.
The moral of this whole experience: if you believe in what you’re doing, it will happen. Have a concrete plan. Stick to it. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t happen. When you encounter resistance, draw inspiration from the naysayers. Change their impressions by showing them your results. If you do that, you’ll find that what you’re doing will become contagious.
Anthony Sansone Jr. develops and manages shopping centers, office and medical buildings, and low-income housing.