The Most Important Question Is Why: A Conversation About Social Impact With Carolyn Berkowitz

The co-founder of Mission Partners wants your company to ask why. She explains the importance of the question to social impact strategies in an interview with GlobalGiving.

Carolyn Berkowitz

Co-Founder, Mission Partners

Who She Is:

Carolyn is co-founder and partner of Mission Partners, counseling clients on building effective CSR and community benefit strategies. As President of the Capital One Foundation from 2005-2016, Carolyn led a $450M community investment strategy focused on fostering economic opportunity. She spent the first half of her career increasing equitable opportunity through education and workforce development as a senior leader in national nonprofit organizations. Carolyn serves on several CSR-focused local, state and national boards.

Q: Tell us about the process you use at Mission Partners to test and refine social impact messages on behalf of companies.

A: We start our social impact messaging work by answering the question why. Why is your community work vital? Why is your company uniquely qualified to create this impact? To answer these questions, we review the company’s existing community messages and materials to understand the mission of the work and essence of the outcomes. Then, we talk with stakeholders of your CSR programs—executives, employees, community leaders, and grantee partners—to learn about the impact of the company’s CSR efforts on their lives and their work. Third, we develop the most compelling case for your work, and communicate it in language that is easily understood among key audiences. Finally, we test the messages with stakeholders and refine them based on specific feedback. The result is a set of credible and compelling messages that can be used across channels to inspire buy-in, action, and engagement, and communicate impact.

Q: What advice do you have for CSR professionals who are struggling to decide which social impact strategies to pursue?

A: Understand your company’s business and its challenges, and then create community partnerships that help address those problems while also making a difference. For example, a few years back, Capital One was making a transition from identifying as a financial services company to positioning itself as a tech company. We were competing with the biggest companies in Silicon Valley for talent and knew that millennials want to work at companies where they can be involved in the community. So, we developed partnerships that both helped us identify diverse talent sources (e.g. Black Girls Code), and engaged our associates in opportunities to align and share their digital skills with our community partners (e.g. teaching kids to code and create their own apps). As a result, we met really talented and diverse prospects and our employees found deeper meaning in their everyday work.

Q: What is a common misstep you see in corporate social impact strategies?

A: Companies should not assume that simply giving money and engaging in short-term volunteering will create the internal or external results that they are seeking. To achieve impact, companies need to go beyond the obvious to utilize their core strengths and assets in meaningful ways and for a sustained period of time. More traditional nonprofit sponsorships are being replaced by mutually beneficial partnerships in which neither organization could fully succeed at the initiative without the strengths of the other. Engage in dialogue with nonprofits that allows each party to discover your core strengths and align them. Be sure that you aren’t expecting the nonprofit to provide significant volunteer opportunities without accompanying funds that ensure your employees will have a great experience.

Q: What is one mistake companies often make in articulating their charitable partnerships to their customers and employees?

A: Overstating and/or understating their CSR results. Overstated results diminish the credibility of a company’s brand, and understated results won’t stand out in the marketplace. To do this successfully, companies need to measure a range of outcomes and communicate them effectively, regardless of the size of the initiative. For example, when your company makes a small donation and executes a project in one location, communicate the depth of the results and not the breadth. If your company’s workforce development grant helps to employ 10 people, describe the impact through personal stories, rather than inferring that your company has reduced unemployment. Collect data on a range of outcomes so you know and can talk about all the ways that your company’s investment has made a difference. Instead of only measuring one outcome (e.g. the number of people who have gotten jobs as a result of the program, which may seem small), think about measuring several things (e.g. counting and aggregating the financial value of the increased salaries or longevity on the job of those same 10 trainees).

Q: You recently predicted that in the Trump era companies will go above and beyond regulatory obligations and take public stands on social issues. What’s driving this trend?

A: One needs to look no further than the day’s headlines to see how societal expectations of companies are changing. Right now, your customers and employees are voicing concerns online in real time and your employees are making choices about where they work based on whether or not your company shares their values. Companies are learning that social issues and community well-being directly impact profits and losses, and it is in their best interests to take a stand in order to earn customer loyalty and attract and retain employees. For example, in a socially conservative state, the advocacy group Texas Competes has made the business and economic case for welcoming LGBT employees and customers, regardless of voter sentiment. More than 1,300 businesses— from Fortune 50 corporations to small businesses all across the state—have signed a pledge to welcome, employ and champion LGBT employees because they’ve learned that doing so improves the talent pool, increases tourism, and bolsters small and large businesses. Conversely, a reputation of being unwelcoming and unsupportive of LGBT residents and employees results in quantifiable economic consequences, including negative press, recruiting challenges, diminished meetings and tourism, cancelled events, and boycotts. When companies understand the long-term business case for taking a public stand, they will authentically embrace the right side of social issues.

Q: If a company takes a social stand, what’s the No. 1 piece of advice they should follow?

A: Be authentic, and take the steps to be sure that your company can live up to its commitment. The anticipated experience for employees, customers, and/or members of the public needs to be embraced throughout the organization, and behaviors must be aligned with the company’s word. When customers walk into a branch, shop at a store or engage with your company online, there can be no inconsistencies with the rhetoric of HR or corporate communications. In order to build alignment and trust, companies must clearly communicate their position internally, build the competencies of their employees to meet expectations, align the brand, and hold themselves accountable for consistently living out their commitment and their values in all aspects of the business.

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