Expectation, expansion, integration: A philanthropic program gets fully engagedKaren Beavor | Georgia Nonprofit NOW Summer 2016
At our annual GCN Corporate Community Breakfast in May, we welcomed corporate philanthropy veteran Jackie Parker—currently director of global philanthropy and corporate giving at General Motors (GM) in Detroit, and formerly head of philanthropic and diversity programs for Atlanta-based Newell Rubbermaid—to speak about the changes corporate grantmakers are undergoing to accommodate a more competitive and interconnected nonprofit market. In a follow-up conversation with GCN President and CEO Karen Beavor, Parker discussed the process of adapting GM’s philanthropic goals to better meet needs locally and globally, and how both methods and mindsets must change if companies, nonprofits, and communities want to meet tomorrow’s challenges.
Karen Beavor: How does a large, international company like GM or Newell Rubbermaid approach its CSR and philanthropic efforts in their home communities?
Jackie Parker: GM is taking a new journey to expand corporate giving beyond their largely hometown-based strategy. My initial approach was to understand how we’ve been making grants in Southeast Michigan, and analyze the types of grants, the relationships, and the historical context of giving in this community.
Detroit is different from Atlanta, in that the auto industry is driven by union workers. With bonds formed over generations, a union community has a family-like sense of connection, leading to tight relationships and a large degree of legacy giving: 94 percent of our giving was annual, involving the same events and the same activities every year. That dynamic makes it particularly challenging to introduce flexibility or innovation into the system.
Talking to stakeholders gave me the perspective to turn the atmosphere of expectation into engagement, by way of a cohesive strategy that embraces innovation—which of course might change or end some of those legacy relationships, but replaces them with more effective and expansive grantmaking. The overall goal for our charitable giving is to deliver more value and to do so in ways that are clear, demonstrable, and measurable.
Everyone is making an independent contribution, but there are too many issues—from housing to education to employment—for one company to do it all.
Beavor: How have you changed the company’s philanthropic priorities to better align Southeast Michigan’s particular needs with GM’s capacity to help?
Parker: It is CSR’s responsibility to help solve social issues where our corporate headquarters are, but the Detroit city system has a history of troubles—in terms of finances and leadership—that means corporations have had to step up and play a more vital role. The problem is that those efforts are not collaborative: Everyone is making an independent contribution, but there are too many issues—from housing to education to employment—for one company to do it all. GM is headquartered smack dab in the middle of the city, and we want to lead.
I sum up our new service areas by saying we are driving social impact to fuel communities—including Detroit—to become more safe, to become smarter, and to become more empowered. The way I solidified our focus areas was by looking internally at our core competencies—What is it that GM uniquely does? What are some of the business opportunities that impact our company?—and then at what our peers are focusing on socially. Considering how we can align opportunities, core competencies, and social issues—the intersection of all that insight led us to a focus on vehicle and road safety, STEM education, and economic empowerment.
Detroit is a city coming back from bankruptcy with a school system that continues to fail its students. We want to effect change through urban revitalization, career readiness, and workforce development, with work that will go beyond grant dollars and utilize the time and talents of our thousands of employees located in Southeast Michigan.
Our skill in innovation—we were first to invest in ridesharing programs Lyft and Maven, and leveraging technology is a sweet spot for us—leads us to support education in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math), which also dovetails with our workforce development goals. Investing in STEM education is also important because about a third of our workforce will be retiring soon, and we’ll have a workforce shortage unless we introduce more students to science. We believe early exposure to STEM means a higher chance kids will enroll in post-secondary universities and become the hires we’ll need. That’s why we are investing in “access programs” that pique their interest with science fairs, competitions, and fun topics like robotics. Our participation also matters because, even when students do earn a degree in technology, they tend to go to an Apple, and not an automotive company.
Beavor: It reminds me of the nursing profession, where there is also a shortage: Despite what people think, it’s become a high-tech profession. There will always be hands-on patient care, but at this point it’s also delivered through amazing devices. The industry has to redefine itself.
It’s not just about leveling the playing field for Detroit kids: We’re investing in programs that will prepare kids to enter the workforce and succeed in the jobs of the future.
Parker: Exactly. We have locations everywhere, so it’s not just about leveling the playing field for Detroit kids: We’re investing in programs that will prepare kids to enter the workforce and succeed in the jobs of the future. There’s a reason the White House has an initiative to enroll more kids in STEM. We want more students to have the combined skillset needed to innovate for tomorrow.
Beavor: How do you find the partners or investments to take that mission globally? What’s a country that GM would approach, and how?
Parker: For example, let’s think about India: There is much revitalization needed in some of their townships, so we’re looking at helping empower those communities. In the more industrialized areas, there are so many cars on the road at any one time, and kids aren’t constrained in car seats, so enhancing vehicle and road safety will also be key. Go to South Africa, and you’ll see issues around workforce readiness similar to the problems we’re facing in America, with an automotive industry that’s now dependent on technology.
We have to localize the strategy, but the overarching objectives and goals are transferrable. For road safety globally, it might be making sure that children are protected in their seats. Domestically, it would be eliminating distracted driving among teens.
Beavor: Research is so important to figuring out what the issues are. Is the hardest part picking partners?
Parker: My plans are to partner with an intermediary organization headquartered in the US to vet local organizations that could identify the right NGOs to work with, like the role played by the Community Foundation for grantmakers: You earmark where you want your funding to go, and they help you manage and administer your grants.
My audacious goal is to integrate philanthropic giving potential from every corner of the company… We want everyone— finance, supply chain, operations, procurement— to ask, how can I help solve a social issue?
Beavor: What are some innovative methods or strategies you’ve pursued? Are there any new practices that you’ve seen in your space making an impact?
Parker: One innovative competency we do well in is repurposing our waste: Around 80 percent of our waste, especially plastics and aluminum, are put back into our vehicles. That’s a skillset that I can take into a developing country, and show them how the same concept or the same framework can apply: Here’s what you are throwing away, let me show you where you could re-use it to solve some of your cost and sustainability issues.
My audacious goal is to integrate philanthropic giving potential from every corner of the company. Remember when diversity was launching as a priority? People had to start shifting their mindsets to prioritize inclusion in everything they did: Hiring, recruitment, management, retention, and everything else required this new lens of inclusion. For me, social investment strategy is the same: We want everyone—finance, supply chain, operations, procurement—to ask, how can I help solve a social issue?