Keeping up corporate social responsibility

As much as businesses love making money, more and more every day are seeking to better their communities and the world around them. To see some fantastic examples of this in practice in the D.C. region, we spoke with Mary Robinson, president and founder of Capacity Partners; and Shannon White, partner at Guidehouse.

ABERMAN: Shannon, I’ll start with you. You’re a partner at Guidehouse Consulting. What exactly is Guidehouse, and how did you, in an organization, decide to get into corporate social responsibility?

WHITE: Guidehouse Consulting, a 2000 person management consulting firm, we really had the vision to help our clients and communities to solve important problems. I’m really proud of our people, and the fact that they want to be able to support their communities, and have a real impact. And in fact, in our first year, we have had our people to engage in the community and volunteer in a number of activities at twice the national average. And I think it’s really important to us, because our nonprofits do all kinds of really wonderful things for all of us, and we’re all beneficiaries of those services that nonprofits provide, and I know that we’ll be talking about that.

ABERMAN: You know, I recently had another guest here in the studio, and he’s working with one of the largest faith based organizations in the U.S., and it is very interesting and important how we don’t really focus on how much not-for-profits and faith-based philanthropic organizations are the dark fiber in our communities. Literally without them, we couldn’t have a society. Mary, your background is, as I understand it, you’re an entrepreneur, kind of like me, and we both got better in some ways, I suppose. But how does an entrepreneur come to this?

ROBINSON: Well, that’s a very good question. So, I did start as a teacher, and then I moved into fundraising, and I co-owned an early software company, which we sold. And then I consulted, and eventually 16 years ago, started Capacity Partners. And so with Capacity Partners, we really are all about building community, at the end of the day. So some of us have been in industries such as banking. Some of us have been in the nonprofit world all these years. But we really believe that all of the sectors, the government sector, the nonprofit sector, and the private sector, have to work together to make our communities work. To make them work on the economic level, on the social level, and so that’s what we’re all about. And you know, our particular focus is non-profits. But we see the whole

ABERMAN: I think that for a lot of people who work in large organizations, jobs can be really fascinating and interesting, consuming. But for a lot of people, it doesn’t really answer the question of: why am I here, or what do I do? Shannon, you’re working at a large organization, a manager consulting company of note. Is that what it’s about, as corporate social responsibility? Basically the individual and aggregate trying to provide some sort of meaning or connectivity?

WHITE: Yes. So I think corporate social responsibility, it’s really this wonderful bridge. So we talk about nonprofits, and I mentioned that they provide all of us with so many benefits, and we’re all beneficiaries. So whether we are enjoying the education for our kids, or enjoying parks, or the arts, or different social services, or health care, the list goes on. Nonprofits are extremely important to us. And then on the other hand, we have a lot of really engaged people. They have a big desire to have a real impact on their communities. And so, corporate social responsibility is that bridge to connect communities and our nonprofits with people who are ready to give their time and their talents. And so, we see all kinds of benefits to our colleagues and to our firm.

So that might be increased engagement from our staff, because they’re really engaged in purposeful work, that’s reflected in an increase in recruitment and retention. And we see that it improves our professionals’ diversity and inclusion acumen, because our professionals are working with their colleagues from across the farm, as well as in different communities with different populations than they may have. It also helps their leadership development skills, their communication skills. And what I really love is that our volunteers increase their happiness level, because they get a little shot of endorphins to their brain when they’re going out and they’re serving people.

ABERMAN: People do like to do stuff that matters, don’t they? Mary, speaking of mattering. I’m going to come at this again from my perspective: I’ve often said that entrepreneurs often use entrepreneurship as a way to answer the question: why am I here, and what do I do? What are some of the nuances and differences that you’ve seen, in owning and starting and selling a software company as an entrepreneur, vis-a-vis being a social responsibility entrepreneur? Is it the same, or are there some differences?

ROBINSON: Well, there really are some differences. And I think one of the things that attracted me to this work, and starting a consulting firm serving nonprofits, is because our purpose is to make this world a better place. Simply put, that is our number one, profit is our number two. And of course my husband might like me to reverse that. But in fact, both are really essential, and I think that when I myself have worked in the corporate environment, I’ve worked for some fantastic companies, but actually, profit is number one. So that, I think, is at the heart of it for me.

ABERMAN: When I talk with people who are worried about retention and attraction, there is a disproportionate belief that you’ve got to provide meaning for Gen Zs or millennials, but somehow that baby boomers don’t care about this. You’re in the trenches. Is that a fair distinction to make at Guidehouse?

WHITE: Our average age does fall squarely in with millennials, although we have every group from our demographics supporting Guidehouse. And what I found is that, people have been really excited about co-creating a corporate social responsibility program. So, we’re a one year startup, and we’ve got a lot of people that are really passionate about the community, and they have come together, whether they’re staff or partners, to help us to create a program that includes volunteering out in the community, serving as board members on nonprofits, giving on an individual and corporate basis, and being good environmental sustainability stewards. And so, as we were creating this new corporate social responsibility program, we knew that what motivated people was autonomy, mastery, and expertise. And so, we really built the program around these three tenets.

So we have a corporate social responsibility program with ambassadors from all of our sectors and geographic locations, and then we encourage everyone to bring forward their favorite nonprofits, gather a team together, and be able to go out and volunteer and support that organization. And so, it is wonderful when I hear people come forward and share with me a handwritten card that they’ve received from their favorite nonprofit that said, hey, thank you so much, it was wonderful that Guidehouse supported us in this digital bootcamp, and we couldn’t serve our constituents without Guidehouse’s help.

ABERMAN: So this, the best argument it sounds like is, if I’m running an organization, I need to have activities that basically create teams, reinforce team behavior, and mentor leaders. And I can either spend a boatload of money bringing consultants in, and create artificial simulations to try to do this, or I can actually do something constructive. I mean, at some fundamental level, is this something that every large organization should be doing now?

WHITE: I think that every large organization should be doing this, really giving their people an opportunity to be able to serve out their passions. And we’re really proud that we have contributed over 20,000 hours this year, and we’ve supported 41 different organizations, both locally and across the country. And the benefits are so great to our people, to the community, and to our firm.

ROBINSON: So I’m going to go back to your original question about the differences because, I think you’re absolutely correct. I think there are some major differences. So, let’s think about the baby boomers, which is my generation, we grew up in the 60s. We were going to save the world. We were all fired up, and you know, got involved with our families, and maybe didn’t necessarily look to our jobs for that particular sense of purpose the way millennials do now, but it doesn’t mean that we didn’t, and don’t care. And from the non-profit perspective, the advantage is, there’s so many baby boomers retiring. They have the opportunity today to be the volunteer workforce for literally every one of our nonprofit clients.

So they’re there, they’re making a difference. In terms of the millennials and the next gens that we work with, there is a difference. I think that search for meaning starts with meaning, to me, as a professional. Is this job going to give me growth? I think that’s really number one. And then number two is, how is that growth going to extend to the community, through the kind of ways that Shannon talked about? So, I have a colleague who is a corporate responsibility consultant, and she is now working with small businesses, not just the large businesses, because this impetus is going throughout the corporate community, which we think is fantastic.

ABERMAN: I think it’s fantastic. I also think that it’s fantastic because the community needs it, but it’s also fantastic because, having myself done a lot of organizational development projects as a leader, if you don’t create opportunity for people to work as a team, people won’t work as a team. And you can’t be effective in today’s economy unless you have effective teams. Speaking of teaming, we’ve talked a lot about why this is a good thing. We’ve talked a lot about, you know, how this is used for retention and all these things. How does it actually come together in practice? How does a government, not-for-profit, corporate, play that out?

WHITE: It has been really great that Mary and I participate in Leadership Greater Washington, which brings together executives from nonprofit, government, and the private sector. And so we’ve seen so many synergies within our class, and then across all of those sectors. And so for example, I was introduced to a small nonprofit, urban farm in Prince George’s County called Eco City Farm. I also had a classmate who is the Director of Development at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Cancer Center, and we were talking about partnering these two organizations. And so right now, we are working to develop a prescription program where doctors at a clinic would write a prescription, so that a patient go to the farm and get healthy fruits and vegetables. This will really help to improve their health outcomes. This is something that’s really innovative that’s going on across the country, and it came together because we had members of the community from these different sectors.

ROBINSON: So since we’re talking about food as a topic, let me mention one of our great clients, Manna Food Center. We’re helping them with a 2.5 million dollar capital campaign. And Manna is the food bank for Montgomery County. So, Manna did an analysis of the areas of need in the county, and took a focus on the East County and Montgomery County. Now, if we look at how all the pieces came together, this was designated as an opportunity zone. We received federal money for it to create this East County opportunity zone. It came through Montgomery County. Manna itself is starting a center to end hunger. We have a number of corporations who have partnered with us to make this happen, hundreds of volunteers who will be there creating a choice pantry to enable people to come and just shop, just like you’d shop in any grocery store. And so, this is an example of all the different components who are going to work together to make a difference in one specific area of our county.

ABERMAN: What are we doing well, as a community, with respect to corporate social responsibility?

ROBINSON: You know corporations, in many ways, are the lifeblood of nonprofits, and that’s through volunteering. I think that’s the aspect that is working the best. So I’m thinking about our client, Greater Washington Urban League, who benefits from hundreds of volunteers to help with their workforce development programs, moving people into homeownership for the first time. Folks who really never would be able to have a home, if it hadn’t been for their work. I mentioned Manna, the hundreds of people who were there at their warehouse every single day. So, that’s working really well. And I could tell you, I sit on the board of the greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce. Every member of our chamber has an involvement with some nonprofit, where his or her folks are out there volunteering every week. That is working.

ABERMAN: Are they giving talent, or treasure, or both?

ROBINSON: Well, from the nonprofit point of view, we look at three things: talent, treasure, and time. For sure, we want to have all of those things. I think where, from my point of view, and Shannon you may disagree with this, but from what I see, the volunteering part is working really well. The sharing of some intellectual capacity is growing as an area where people are not only just going and volunteering with kind of low level skills, but are sharing their high level skills. And in terms of the treasure, the fact is, and the Giving USA just came out, that corporate giving across the country, is just a little above 5 percent of all giving in the United States. While that’s working well, we on the non-profit side would probably think it could be better.

WHITE: I agree. I definitely see that one of the trends over the last few years is that people, consumers, employees, and communities, all have a real expectation that businesses will make a positive impact in the world. And so I agree, it’s a real engine for elevating our communities. We have also seen a shift away from exclusively sponsoring galas and debt dinners, and instead increasing the opportunities for our people to make an impact with their time, their talent, and their giving. And because at Guidehouse, our mission is to solve important problems, often we find real alignment to be able to support our nonprofit organizations. I like to talk about So Others Might Eat, an organization here in Washington D.C.

Every day, there are volunteers helping to sponsor, prepare, and serve breakfast and lunch to those in need. And many of our teams, throughout the year, have worked with S.O.M.E. to be able to volunteer with that organization. In addition, we have recently focused on placing our leaders on nonprofit boards through our board service program, because we know that nonprofits also need ongoing leadership in government, or governance assistance, from leaders in the community. And so, just in June, we placed seven people working with Compass to be able to place them on boards.

ROBINSON: And I think that’s such an important point, because many folks in the corporate arena know how to lead. Know how to make decisions. They’ve often gone through strategic planning themselves, and their own divisions of their corporations. So when they come to serve on a nonprofit board, there is a little bit of difference in the speed of decision making between a nonprofit and a business. But they bring just enormous knowhow of what it means to lead.

WHITE: And then I think alternatively, our leaders are learning so much from being on those boards. I talked about the increase in diversity and inclusion acumen, being able to be more flexible as they wait patiently at that new speed. And then, just continuing to feel really great about themselves, because they are making an impact on these communities, that are getting so many benefits from them.

ABERMAN: It’s hard for me to imagine, but this has gone by so quickly, we’re just about done with each other for today. What’s missing? If you had a call to action for the community, Mary, I’ll ask you: what’s the call to action? What do we need people to do that they’re not doing right now?

ROBINSON: Well, I think the call to action is focusing really on the heart of the problem, the social issue to be addressed, and then bringing together the various components. So let me give us an example. A client we have, the Montgomery Coalition of Adult English Literacy. There are actually probably close to a million people in Montgomery County, and at least 100,000, who do not have strong English skills. They all work somewhere. Every corporation, every business, is impacted by the fact that a lot of these people do not have the full skills to participate in their work. We have lots of ideas about how they can come together, different types of training on the job, which will also allow people to increase their skills, and make way for higher level jobs, for people to move up to higher level jobs in the community. So, what I would love to see is more of taking a problem, looking at the businesses, and nonprofits, and the government, who are involved in it, and focusing on what role each has to play, and then make it happen.

ABERMAN: Shannon, what’s on your wishlist?

Yeah. Well, I love that, Mary. I do really see that there is this growing trend to make sure that businesses are at the heart of solving our important problems, and also an expectation that the businesses are going to create social ventures. In fact, there is a new chapter of Conscious Capitalism, Greater D.C., that started in 2019. And the leaders of this chapter in Conscious Capitalism are really motivated by a higher purpose to serve all of their stakeholders, including customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and the community. And so, I think this would be great, to have a real challenge to all of our businesses to continue to step forward to meet that demand from our communities, and from our people, and to support them, so that we can all elevate our communities.

ABERMAN: Well without question, we are the national capital of not for profit, philanthropic, and social venturing. And so, for us not to be incredibly strong in corporate social responsibility is not only, well, it just shouldn’t happen. So, it is great to have this conversation, I hope this continues to engender further conversations. Thank you to both of you for your leadership, and it’s just wonderful to have you both. Mary Robinson, CEO of consulting firm Capacity Partners, thanks for joining us.

ROBINSON: Thank you, Jonathan.

ABERMAN: And Shannon White, first of all, shout out to Solomon, and it was great having you represent Guidehouse here, and learning about your corporate social responsible leadership. Thanks for joining us.

WHITE: Thank you, I appreciate it, Jonathan.

ABERMAN: That was What’s Working in Washington EXTRA: corporate social responsibility. We’ll see you next time.


Sign up for breaking news alerts