Making Change: Human Resources

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Ben Hecht sat in the California headquarters of Cisco Systems looking for a corporate handout. Hecht, president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit One Economy Corporation, was hoping his March 2001 visit to Cisco Systems would yield a check or, perhaps, some donated equipment that would help his organization in its mission of bringing internet access to residents of low-income and affordable housing developments across the country. He got much more.

Cisco was in the midst of a round of massive layoffs, and the company’s philanthropy arm had stepped in with an effort to make some good out of the situation. It created a program that sent a small group of the people being laid off to 21 nonprofits around the country for a year of full-time work. Laid-off workers could apply to the program and, if chosen by one of the nonprofits, they’d get one-third of their former salaries, maintain their benefits and keep access to continuing education in technology.

The program hardly ameliorated Cisco’s layoffs–the company gave out thousands of pink slips and only 81 fellowships. (At year’s end, nine of the fellows chose to continue working for the nonprofits to which they had been assigned, and 34 got their jobs back at Cisco). But it did offer a shot in the arm to the participating nonprofits, each of which used the fellows to launch long-term projects that required technology expertise they didn’t have in-house and couldn’t afford to buy.

Cisco officials invited Hecht’s One Economy to participate. “We happened to be at Cisco pitching our program, and Cisco said, ‘Wow, many of our employees would love to do what you’re doing,'” Hecht recalls. In fact, 60 of the fellowship applicants ultimately applied to work at One Economy. Hecht and his colleagues chose 13 and assigned them to One Economy offices throughout the country.

With more and more companies facing declining profits and mounting losses, many are pursuing new strategies of corporate giving. In place of cash, they are sharing something else of value: their employees.

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“We call them our Cisco accelerators,” Hecht says of his fellows. “They probably impacted on three to five thousand units of housing.” One Economy credits the Cisco fellows with creating content for its website, producing “how to” guides for housing authorities looking to wire their facilities, helping to actually implement the wiring for 75 properties housing 15,000 residents–and saving the organization a whopping 10,000 hours of staffing time.

But the real impact, says One Economy’s New York director Tom Kamber, may be the long-term changes the fellows sparked. They brought a level of tech-world credibility that helped One Economy transform from, as Kamber puts it, “tech-savvy people who were really respected in the housing world” into technology experts who can show developers exactly how a project will get done. This new expertise drew the attention of a Boston-based technology consulting group that had helped that city wire one of its public housing complexes, and the two groups developed a permanent partnership under the name Access One. “Cisco gave us a really strong toehold in the wiring and wireless access world,” says Kamber. “We’d have housing guys talking to them about the ideas, but we had these Cisco guys that could back us up.”

Working with its Boston partners, One Economy is now bringing broadband internet access to all 465 units of the Dr. Betty Shabazz Complex and the Medgar Evers Houses, both in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which the Community Service Society, the Settlement Housing Fund, Long Life Information and Referral Network and the buildings’ tenants associations are in the process of taking over and refurbishing. The area doesn’t have access to DSL or cable modem service, which would allow each apartment to independently plug into the internet. So One Economy plans to install a T1 line–a specialized phone line that allows scores of people to connect to the internet simultaneously, and which is found in most offices.

When One Economy pitched the idea to the developers, it brought in its Boston partners to do a full analysis of the Bed-Stuy facilities–figuring out where the T1 line could come in, where they could run the needed cable, how much it would cost and so on. That specificity moved the proposal from the ethereal world of bright ideas to a place where everyone could envision its completion–even though such a project has not been attempted previously on such a large scale. “Everybody’s doing this on the faith of the partnership,” Kamber says.

“There are some incredible, innovative programs out there,” says Susanne Brose, director of the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy in New York, in reflecting on the changing model for corporate giving. “In the evolution of corporate philanthropy, we are seeing corporate programs that have moved beyond just cash grants…. It’s less about modeling any particular program than it is about developing strategies that are in line with corporate missions.”

The Cisco program, for instance, chose its partner nonprofits based on their level of demonstrated commitment to using technology–in particular, the internet–to improve the services they were already providing.

Of course, these new strategies come at a time when corporate giving is decreasing. According to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel in New York, which tracks corporate donations, corporate giving dropped 12.1 percent, to $9.05 billion, in 2001. However, the same time period has seen a surge in philanthropy programs focused on volunteerism.

This spring, AT&T employees and retirees will be cleaning up parks and playgrounds across the country, including Washington Square and Battery Park City’s green spaces. It’s part of the New Jersey-based company’s AT&T Cares program, which it started in 1996. Last year, more that half of AT&T’s employees volunteered individually or as part of work teams. But as more AT&T employees are volunteering their time, the company’s foundation has scaled back its giving. In 2001, the AT&T Foundation gave out $46 million; this year’s budget is less than half that amount, $22 million.

Similar programs are springing up around the country. Each year, Whole Foods Market, Inc., a Texas-based natural and organic foods supermarket chain, allows its employees to use up to 20 hours of their paid time each year on community service for an organization of the employee’s choice. The San Francisco-based Salesforce.com, which provides companies with web-based services for tracking sales and marketing, has only about 200 employees. But this relatively small staff has given more than 4,000 hours to community-service programs in the past two years. They’ve provided technical expertise to 41 community technology centers around the world, where students learn photography, video production and web design.

At Universal Parks and Resorts in Orlando, Florida, more than 3,000 employees have volunteered for more than 8,500 hours of community service for programs that focus on children, education, hunger and homelessness. They serve as mentors at local schools, coordinate carnivals for homeless families, provide technical expertise to nonprofit organizations and make visits to children’s hospitals.

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But part of what made the Cisco program unique was its ability to generate a partnership: nonprofits didn’t just get one-shot volunteers–they got full-time staff. And that meant they were able to launch long-term projects. One fellow who worked with the international humanitarian assistance group Care USA traveled to Cambodia, India, Thailand and Bangladesh to help the group determine how it could better use the internet to deliver its programs.

At the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, fellows were credited with reducing the workload of food bank employees by 450 hours per month, building a database that allowed the group to double the number of clients it serves and accelerating the group’s technology plan by five years. In all, they provided Second Harvest with more than $1.1 million in consulting services.

“The fellows have not only contributed to the ongoing work of CARE USA,” says Eric Dupree Walker, CARE’s strategic planning and analysis coordinator. “They are also helping to broaden our view of how technology improves operational effectiveness.”

Peter Tavernise, executive director of Cisco Systems Foundation, the company’s philanthropy arm, says that’s the point. “The core competency of our employees will be the greatest value we can add to the nonprofit sector. And it’s more than simply networking expertise,” Tavernise told the Philanthropy Journal. “It’s everything we’ve learned, from human resources and finance to marketing or operations, about the benefits of appropriate technology for increasing productivity.”

And in the end, that’s a perspective that may be far more sustainable than grantmaking. “Companies are developing programs that are in line with their corporate missions, so the companies can sustain the programs in good and bad times,” says Brose, of the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy. “When that happens, there’s no shortage of people who want to get involved.”

Mark Lowery is a freelance writer in Teaneck, New Jersey.