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What You Need to Know About Corporate Social Responsibility: AboutThem’s Informal Conversation with Peter Tavernise of Cisco Foundation

Corporate social responsibility is not a new idea, but whether an organization is new or established, a comprehensive program in CSR focuses on specific areas. Peter Tavernise, Executive Director of Cisco Foundation and Director of Cisco Corporate Affairs in Public Benefit Investment, recently reflected with AboutThem on these areas, their associated best practices, and how nonprofits can measure their impact.

Peter, I’d like to ask first about your background. What was your career path to your current position?

My first internship out of college happened to be with my alma mater, Davidson College, in their Corporate and Foundation Relations fundraising department. After graduate school, I naturally gravitated towards similar work because I enjoyed it so much. First at UT Austin School of Architecture, and later at Duke School of Engineering and the Duke Development Office, I focused on corporate and foundation relations. Part of my assignment was to staff a Duke family foundation that made grants on campus to faculty members doing research, so I learned a great deal about how to run a small grantmaking organization. During the same period (the late 1990s) I served on an advisory panel for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation regarding technology and nonprofits. I had been volunteering as an advocate for adopting nonprofit technology in the early days of the Web, trying to help organizations understand how IT could help improve both operations and program delivery. Eventually I was hired at Z. Smith, and for two years it was a phenomenal apprenticeship in general, statewide grantmaking in areas such as Education and Economic Empowerment.

The only thing that could have tempted me away from Z. Smith was the opportunity to go deeper into the work of IT in the nonprofit sector. In 2001, I joined Cisco and began working in an organization whose mandate was to mobilize the assets and resources of the company, including expertise of employees, to help transform the nonprofit sector through the use of IT. Included in a round of layoffs several months later, I then became a Cisco Community Leadership fellow at Public Allies NC. Again, I was able to use my fundraising background—this time in the context of organizing grassroots leadership training—and the experience was life-changing. Rehired at Cisco after a year, I’ve since fulfilled a variety of roles in foundation and corporate grantmaking.

For anyone unfamiliar with nonprofits, how would you explain the difference between corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility?

Corporate grantmaking is simply a subset. Corporate social responsibility generally covers at least five dimensions, depending on the company, including issues such as governance, society, environment, employees, and sustainability. Grantmaking would fall under the society category.

What can corporations do to exercise more social responsibility?

Speaking here just about the society/grantmaking aspect, the most important thing a company can do is to develop a giving strategy that aligns with their core competency. Many companies still practice what is called reactive or checkbook philanthropy: they receive requests and make grants without regard to specific criteria, and when the checkbook is empty, the program closes for the year. You can trace the evolution of the sector from this type of reactive giving to strategic corporate philanthropy to corporate social responsibility and now to shared value by reading this article by Professors Kramer and Porter of Harvard University.

How can a new foundation successfully put in place checks and balances for its own practices?

The Council on Foundations and their regional affiliated organizations have decades of best practices available for everything from “What should our spending and investment policies be?” to “What is a good conflict of interest policy for our board?” I would encourage any company new to the field to work with their regional Council organization to help structure their initial processes, policy and procedures manuals, and so forth. Also, read Betsy Adler’s great book Rules of the Road: A Guide to the Law of Charities in the United States (Council on Foundations, 1999). For a new foundation just getting off the ground, your local community foundation may also be a capable resource to help with staffing and structuring before the corporation brings the foundation operations in-house.

Within the grantmaking process, what are a foundation’s most important considerations? Do best practices exist for this process?

This really is the key question for corporate leadership and the initial board—to first define the corporation’s own core competencies that it can bring to bear on specific issues, and the specific issues that resonate most with the company and its employees. That process of discovery and definition is vital to complete before a new foundation can arrive at grantmaking criteria. It is just as important to explore and answer the questions, “What is exactly the type of organization/program we are seeking to support?” as it is to define “What are all the things that we don’t fund?” All the advice I provided above applies here. You can work with the Council on Foundations and/or a local community foundation team to facilitate this process.

How can a nonprofit determine its impact? What are the metrics?

Volumes have been written on this topic. One place to start would be to study the early work of Roberts Enterprise Development Fund to see how they proved it possible to define, measure, and report social outcomes (as well as proving that doing so takes significant work and time to achieve). The first hurdle is coming to the conclusion as an organization that it is possible to define and measure social outcomes based on the goals of any given program at the nonprofit. Second, work backwards from the intended outcome to the possible ways to measure whether that outcome is achieved. If that outcome can’t be measured directly, can you identify a proxy metric that would give you a window into the likelihood of the intended outcome in the future? Theory of change is just one way to approach this (A+B+C = some outcome).

The second half of answering the question above is entirely contingent on the type of nonprofit, the type of program, the population being served, and other factors such as the geography where the service is taking place. Some issues lend themselves more easily to measurement than others. For instance, student grades are an indicator you might use in an educational context. Another example is the context of economic development; take a look at the work of the Progress out of Poverty Index for a model of how to approach this. They have developed a set of 10-12 observations one can make about a household, which can be performed by field-team members, to determine income status. These observations are statistically correlated to the key economic indicators of each country that PPI has developed rubrics to measure. MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab is another great resource along these lines, although they take their own approach. I am also a huge fan of the work done over the past decade with social enterprises and outcome metrics by the Mulago Foundation.

If you don’t want to self-guide through this process, a number of consultancies and companies are working with nonprofits, foundations, and corporations on these topics (examples are Bridgespan, FSG, Mission Measurement, and Keystone Accountability).

How would you advise anyone seeking to work in corporate philanthropy?

There isn’t any one career path to get to this type of role, but I encourage anyone wishing to be a grant maker to work first in the nonprofit sector. That experience will help tremendously when it comes time to review and reality-check new ideas and potential funding opportunities. It is also important to be able to meet and speak with nonprofit professionals from a firsthand understanding of their context, daily challenges, and resource constraints. Beware hubris; keep humility and heart for the work. As my first mentor said constantly, “Remember, it is not your money; you are just a steward.”

Until recently there were no undergraduate or graduate programs in this area, but some programs have popped up, such as the Berkeley Haas School of Business MBA CSR area of emphasis.