Voyeur | Feature | Don’t Show Me The Money

The month of May in 2011 saw one of the most devastating tornadoes in the American Midwest’s history tear through the town of Joplin, Missouri. It killed 158 people, injured more than 1000 and caused about $2.24 billion in damage. In the aftermath, when more than 7000 buildings were destroyed, the local non-profit Rebuild Joplin organisation started gathering volunteers to reconstruct homes for people who were now living in government-owned trailer parks. But the group had a few problems: there was no real way of scheduling their volunteers or builders, and there were long wait times between when locals applied for new homes and when they finally moved in.

Global car-maker Toyota noticed and decided it might be able to help. But rather than throw money at the issue, it thought it could offer the skills and knowledge it had built up over the decades of car-making to do something different and more positive for the community.

For Toyota, building a car is an exercise in efficiency: every single unit of the manufacturer’s resources that is saved at each point in the production line can mean huge savings in the eventual cost of the car. After all, it is car-makers who are famed for revolutionising the manufacturing process — in 1913 Henry Ford pioneered the first moving assembly line.

In the days after the Joplin tornado, Toyota Production System Support Centre (TSSC) — a non-profit arm of the Japanese car-maker’s North American operation — implemented scheduling boards, assigning volunteers to duties. They also started tracking inventory. The results were almost immediate: reconstruction time for a destroyed home dropped from an average of 62 days to 41, equalling a 34 per cent reduction. To Toyota, an injection of efficiency was more valuable than a lump- sum donation as it meant families were getting back into their homes faster.

The car-maker’s role in helping the people of Joplin represents one example of a new, growing type of corporate philanthropy. Instead of donating a sum of money and patting themselves on the back, major companies are now donating their knowledge and skills-base to help non-profit groups do what they do better.

And the idea seems to be taking off around the world. “You know the saying,” Helen Maisano, associate director of corporate social responsibility at Optus, says, “if you give someone a fish, you feed them for a day, but if you teach them to fish, you feed them forever.”

Tackling big issues

It’s a common theme in publishing the world over: magazines and newspapers are seeing falling circulation, soft advertising revenue and job cuts. For The Big Issue, however, there was an added pressure. The global non-profit group gives half the cover price of every magazine it sells to the street vendor who sold it — which in most cases are people who are homeless. In this tough market, the magazine looked to a not-so-obvious outside partner for help: Origin Energy, and in particular, its philanthropic arm, Origin Foundation (during the 2011– 2012 financial year, Origin Foundation donated $600,000 worth of staff time to charities and non-profit groups.) The electricity provider recruited a team of managers — consisting of analysts and market researchers who interpret research findings and formulate strategies — to help The Big Issue learn more about its sales figures. Was it the number of vendors they were employing? Was it the colour of the cover, or the kind of image they put on it? “We knew there were a lot of factors but we wanted to be more measured,” says Louise Gray, who works in partner relations at the magazine.

The five-person Origin team trawled through six years of sales data, looking for spikes and working out their genesis. “The piece for us that was great was quantifying what we already thought: more vendors on the street equals more sales,” Gray says.

But the team unearthed another valuable piece of information: namely, that sales dropped during bad weather. So,if a string of 40-degree days were forecast in a particular city for the following week, The Big Issue could decide to print fewer copies, saving it money. “For us, we have a business need to find that information out but we don’t have the people to do it or the budget to employ someone to do it,” Gray says. “So we get a piece of work [from Origin] that’s very usable.”

That work equated to about 80–100 hours of staff time from Origin’s team, which the head of the Origin Foundation, Sean Barrett calls engaged philanthropy: “What we are doing is saying, ‘Money will help these organisations get only so far’.”

Giving back

Australian organisation Karma Currency knows just how much a business’s skills and expertise can help a non-profit. One arm, Goodcompany — which CEO Ash Rosshandler jokingly refers to as a “dating site” because of its match-making capabilities — sets out to provide a link between two parties.

National Australia Bank has paid attention, hooking up with Goodcompany to donate its business management and bookkeeping nous to a charity that supports children with autism and their families. NAB also got the RSPCA some much-needed IT expertise by offering the skills of its department head. Telstra and ANZ are other large Australian companies using the group as a search tool to find non-profits that might benefit from their expertise. “A lot of these small non-profits run off the smell of an oily rag,” Rosshandler says. “There are some organisations that say ‘we operate due to Goodcompany’.” Indeed, Goodcompany is proof of its own model: Rosshandler says the group, which employs a handful of full-time staff, could not survive without its board members and accountants donating their skills.

With this type of philanthropy, the businesses also benefit — and that extends beyond a PR boost. A study completed by Macquarie University’s Graduate School of Management found employees who are involved in skills-based philanthropic end up getting a lot more out of their jobs; they report greater satisfaction, are more committed to the company and are more likely to be retained, too.

The US financial firm Deloitte operates a skills-based volunteer program, and a survey of its employees found 76 per cent gained job-relevant skills doing charity work. “We set people up to use their area of expertise, be it strategy, accounting, operations, technology, finance or human resources,” wrote Cathy Benko, Deloitte’s vice chairman and managing principal, last year in the Harvard Business Review blog. “For example, if a non-profit is experiencing an issue with hiring, we provide human capital consultants to help it revamp its process. We learnt that this mode of giving delivers a greater impact to the community because it helps fill critical capability gaps in non-profits.”

Barrett says the same is true at Origin. The vast majority of employees donating their time via the foundation come back saying it gave them a sense of fulfilment and that it was good to know their company had a social conscience.

Dr Wendy Scaife, a senior research fellow at the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, says she is seeing more and more of this type of corporate philanthropy. “Charities will be able to identify very often where their needs are. Or companies, as in the case with Toyota, will see a bottleneck that they have got the skills to sort out.”

Scaife experienced the model firsthand through her work with the Leukaemia Foundation of Queensland. When software and services company Mincom built its new building in Brisbane, it gave the foundation office space. “If you add up the value of that rent in the centre of the city over a period of time, that’s a really significant input that is obviously an easier ask for them than to give money.”

It’s a more evolved form of philanthropy and, according to Scaife, a more strategic way for companies to do some social good. “You can’t always write cheques — it’s more of a concerted [effort], working together in a planned way over a longer period of time as an ongoing partnership,” she says. “And that is true philanthropy.”

Published in Voyeur, the Virgin Australia inflight magazine, in February, 2014. Illustration: Ray Zapanta (Illustration Room).

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