It’s About Taking Action, Not Just Cutting a Check

When Kate James joined Pearson in 2014 as its chief of corporate affairs and global marketing, the international education publisher was going through some changes. One such move included a shift from what James calls “arm’s-length philanthropy,” whereby a corporation simply cuts a check to an outside nonprofit, to taking a more active role in developing change-driven solutions.

In the second installment of our series “10 Leaders on Business for Good,” NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman talked with James about how Pearson is altering the landscape of public-private partnerships for the better and what other companies can learn from those efforts.

You’ve worked at both philanthropic foundations and big corporations. What can a socially focused company do to enact change that might be harder for a nonprofit to do?

The journey that Pearson has been on, and continues to be on, is figuring out how to move from most of our social-impact work being done by a foundation at arm’s length to really embracing the opportunity for social innovation. To more bluntly answer your question: the private-sector dollar is super-important, especially given the scale of the challenges that the world is facing. Also, a large company can more easily convene other powerful players behind a cause while harnessing its campaign capabilities. Corporations can put their brand into play and leverage their commercial influence to reach more people in need. Pearson isn’t just coming at a problem with a check; instead we’re saying, ‘Hey, we can bring a lot more to it with our R&D capabilities.’

As the chief communications executive, Kate James helps lead Pearson’s social-impact initiatives.

What projects is Pearson working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?

Right now we’re focused on three big initiatives. One that we are certainly most proud of is Project Literacy, which is no big surprise for an education company. When we conducted our initial research into the issue, we were struck by the fact that there are 757 million people around the world that lack basic literacy skills. And so Pearson seized the opportunity to create a coalition that’s working to close the literacy gap. We’ve attracted more than 100 diverse partners, from Microsoft to USAID, who all realize education is a fundamental part of any solution, from reducing child mortality rates to enabling someone suffering from AIDS to wholly understand their disease.

Pearson has also launched an internal incubator for employees to develop their entrepreneurial skills. They’re given the time to really think about ideas that can reach communities that otherwise Pearson’s products and services wouldn’t be reaching. For example, we’ve seen proposals for really smart ways to utilize the power of virtual reality and another that examines the refugee challenges in Germany and how to meet them.

And then there’s our work in Jordan with Save the Children on a program called Every Child Learning. Our partnership plays to our R&D strengths; we’re piloting a digital learning solution to deliver education to Syrian refugees and host community children in Jordan, with an eye toward adapting and scaling these in other emergency situations. Because these kids are often moving from place to place, we believe a mobile education platform is part of the solution.

How has Pearson’s focus on researching and developing solutions for social good changed the working environment for employees?

By constantly innovating and trying new things, we’re working to align our social-impact work with our own business goals and objectives. When you get that alignment, it’s amazing how much more resolve employees have and how much more engaged they are. When you’re focused on the double bottom line, then the work is sustainable and that means companies will be much more involved in philanthropic efforts and for a longer period of time. That’s what we have at Pearson that was missing before: a deeper level of connection between a foundation’s work and a corporation’s commercial strategy.

What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?

I started my career at GlaxoSmithKline, and the head of corporate affairs then was a wonderful lady. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but she made a lot of effort to talk to the young women graduates who were coming into GSK, and she became a phenomenal role model. She showed us how you could navigate a career path right to the very top. What really stuck with me is the importance of and the responsibility to really spend time with young women often. Some of our sparkiest young employees are women and, from the get-go, they can see that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. As the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other. I think that’s a pretty important mantra for all women in senior positions to take pretty seriously.

Microsoft’s Secret Weapon

As a child growing up in a tiny town in the Midwest, Mary Snapp absorbed the importance of commitment to community from her parents. “Literally every night, my parents were out at some meeting, and my dad delivered Meals on Wheels to seniors,” she recalls. Today, as corporate vice president and the first head of Microsoft Philanthropies, Snapp leads the technology company’s corporate citizenship initiatives.
Recently, NationSwell founder and CEO Greg Behrman sat down with Snapp to discuss the importance of companies providing a structure of support for social good and volunteerism.
GB: What is one approach or guiding principle at Microsoft Philanthropies that differentiates you from others?
MS: Microsoft’s Giving Campaign started 30 years ago when co-founder Bill Gates’s mother, Mary, told him that it was important to build philanthropy into the fabric of the company. We commit to matching employees’ volunteer time hour-by-hour and donations dollar-for-dollar. Last year, employees raised $142 million for nearly 19,000 nonprofits and schools worldwide. The program really encourages creative volunteering, such as Hacks for Good, where employees come up with ways to reduce demands for sex trafficking to things related to weather forecasts and water conservation. It’s really, truly unique.
For the past three decades, Microsoft has also been committed to supporting education. We believed 30 years ago, and we still believe today, that it’s really important for young people, especially underserved populations and girls, to learn science, technology, engineering and math. Our Technical Education and Literacy in Schools initiative started with one engineer volunteering an hour of his time several days a week to teach computer science at an underserved school. After a couple of years, he had nine other engineers joining him. This year, Microsoft employees are in 350 schools in 30 states team-teaching computer science alongside a teacher.
GB: Do you think what you’re doing to engage employees around social good is having an impact on employee engagement and enthusiasm, and the culture at Microsoft?
MS: I only have purely anecdotal evidence, but I think it does. For example, I recently met with some senior level employees who told me that they came to Microsoft specifically because of the ability to volunteer. And I’ve had a number of conversations with our data science lead who told me that his employees are constantly being recruited by outside companies, but they choose to work at Microsoft because they want to do things that give them purpose.

As corporate vice president for Microsoft Philanthropies, Mary Snapp leads efforts to expand Microsoft’s social impact around the globe.

GB: As you look forward into the world of corporate responsibility and philanthropy, what’s next for you and Microsoft?
MS: Two years ago, at the World Economic Forum, there was a lot of talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the cloud. Last year, most of the discussion was on artificial intelligence and robots. We realized that we have an obligation to talk about digital skills and jobs for the future, but that we also need to urgently think about middle skills — jobs that are beyond a high school diploma, but don’t require a college degree — as well.
Fulfilling this middle skills area is coming at a pretty fast and broad clip. We believe that, as a big technology company, we have a particular responsibility to help ease the transition that’s coming with technology. We hope to work in urban and rural communities to build out technical skill programs so that as we move forward, technology does not leave people behind.
GB: What advice might you have for someone at the beginning of his or her career that aspires to lead business in the direction of sustainability and responsibility?
MS: Many young people have to overcome things that I didn’t, but it’s still possible for them to achieve their dreams. These dreams may change over time, but they need to have persistence and an interest in continuous learning. And I’d be sure to tell them that they’re going to make it, because they are.

The Giving Girls

Thalia Taylor, a 17-year-old Bronx teen has a lot of opinions, specifically when it comes to problems affecting her peers. After all, young women from the South Bronx, Southeast Queens or East New York areas experience higher rates of HIV infection, are more likely to be victims of violent crime and have less access to reproductive services than white women within the same age.
New York City government has attempted to address these issues by funding nonprofits that work with young women of color in those neighborhoods, but there’s one glaring issue: The organizations often don’t have representation on their staff or boards of the very groups they aim to help. The result? Here’s what Taylor thinks: “By leaving us out of the conversation and not consulting us is really useless, in a sense,” she says.
But now Taylor has become part of a program called Girls IGNITE Grantmaking (GIG). This group of 15 young women from the outer reaches of New York City’s boroughs are deciding how to divvy up $30,000 amongst a handful of nonprofits providing assistance to young women.
“We have a 30 year history of participatory grantmaking and we really think that community members should make decisions on where funding goes,” says Neha Raval, senior program officer at the New York Women’s Foundation (NYWF), who runs GIG in alliance with the YWCA of the City of New York. “But there was a problem. We didn’t see young girls of color at the table helping to make important decisions that would impact them.”
(In exchange for their work, Taylor and the other young women in the program also received a $1,000 stipend, 10 percent of which was earmarked for donation to other philanthropic causes of their choosing.)
In advance of their grantmaking, the girls learned the ins and outs of how nonprofits are funded and participated in lectures about popular social issues. More importantly, they made site visits and listened to pitches from directors of nonprofits about how they’d solve various issues impacting young girls of color.
“We were so pleased to see young people in these leadership roles, and I think this is something companies often strive for,” says Tracy Hobson, executive director of the Center for Anti-Violence, one of GIG’s beneficiaries. “It made us really step back and ask ourselves, ‘How do we speak the language of the people that we work with all the time?’”

Without input from community members themselves, Thalia Taylor, third from right, believes that philanthropic assistance is useless.

Research into the demographics of philanthropy released in 2014 by the diversity coalition D5 showed that boardrooms are overwhelmingly filled with men and close to 90 percent of nonprofit CEOs and presidents are white.
The lack of diversity is problematic for philanthropic organizations hoping to address cultural issues such as socioeconomic status in poor areas or women’s reproductive rights.
“Philanthropy likes to think that it’s the investment capital for social change,” says Stephanie Chrispin, a public policy fellow at Philanthropy New York, a nonprofit organization. “But if its leaders are limited in their vision because they are overwhelmingly straight, white males who live in rarefied bubbles, the sector’s ability to see the possibilities and strengths in marginalized communities will remain obscured.”
Diversity within the nonprofit sector becomes even more problematic when looking at organizations that support youth. Leaders of nonprofits that work to help young women of color say there is a definitive lack of young female voices in deciding where money is needed most.
“If the point of diversifying is to make sure voices are heard for those who we’re helping, then philanthropy groups are failing,” says Jennifer Agmi, director of programs at NYWF. “With [the fellows], what we’re saying is we don’t know, and they know more than we do.”
Other philanthropic groups, including the Disability Rights Fund and The Social Justice Fund Northwest, also use participatory grantmaking. The New York Women’s Foundation plans to offer Girls IGNITE Grantmaking again next year.
By giving community members a seat at the table, more impact is achieved, says Dr. Amir Pasic, dean of philanthropic studies at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“I think there’s been a realization, globally, that investing in young women helps elevate a community,” says Pasic.
And there’s another benefit for fellows, including Taylor: The empowerment gained by knowing that through voicing their opinions, they’ve had a part in making their community a better place.
Homepage photo courtesy of Vivienne Peng at The New York Women’s Foundation.

Are Maximizing Financial Returns and Maximizing Social Outcomes Mutually Exclusive?

Best friends Scott Thomas and Sammy Politziner have shared a lot of experiences: being college classmates, teaching in New York City public schools, working on Wall Street and volunteering for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Inspired by that moment and a desire to be “part of the solution,” says Politziner, the pair founded Arbor Brothers, which provides money and coaching to nonprofit organizations dealing with growing pains. NationSwell spoke to the two members of the NationSwell Council about how nonprofits can adapt to changes in the social service sector.
Talk about the “second-stage gap”—after an idea’s seed funding runs out, but before the organization has proven results—that you’re trying to bridge.
Thomas: There’s a lot of incubators, fellowships, business plan competitions. At the other end of the spectrum, traditional philanthropy is really risk-averse; a lot of folks get paid every day to find those things that are really proven solutions. Between this throbby start-up area and this staid, traditional funding lies this big chasm. That holds true for even the most talented entrepreneurs. Take the example of Wendy Kopp and Teach for America: She was scrambling to keep the lights on at TFA in years three and four. We used to joke, “It shouldn’t be that hard to change the world.” If you have a good idea and that passion to develop it, someone should be there to help you across that funding landscape.

These days, there’s so much emphasis on numbers. How do you develop an outcomes-focused culture?
Politziner: We don’t believe changing someone’s life is a math problem. We have seen the philanthropic space, once somewhat unconcerned with numbers, swing maybe too far towards them. At Arbor Brothers, we’re quantitative by nature, but we recognize that a lot of changes cannot be measured quickly. We shouldn’t not invest in something simply because we can’t see the change right away. That said, the leader can’t just say this change is so far down the line, we shouldn’t bother to track indicators along the way.

How do you find the most promising leaders?
Thomas: There are a bunch of intangibles that we consistently mull on when we look back on the really successful organizations. One thing that we’ve grown ever more focused on is what Jim Collins talks about in “Good to Great,” this notion of deep humility. The really great leaders are so humble about how hard the problem is to solve, how long it’s going to take to find something that works and how many times they should expect themselves to fail and to struggle. If you’re the kind of person who’s never been wrong in your life or you’re not interested in learning from the failures of others, it’s really hard to get where you need to go fast enough.
What book would you recommend for someone to better understand your approach?
Thomas: “Leap of Reason,” by Mario Morino, a former software executive turned philanthropist in the [Washington] D.C. area. His Venture Philanthropy Partners, on a much bigger scale than Arbor Brothers, has really set the standard on what it means to help an organization with high potential become high performing. His book really distills what it means to be focused on outcomes—not just the philosophy, but the systems to make sure it persists over time.
What philanthropic trends excite or disappoint you?
Thomas: Speaking personally, there’s a tension between the perception and reality around social-impact businesses. Having spent some time with a couple, I personally have yet to see an organization that both achieves meaningful financial market returns and meaningful social outcomes. The tension between are you maximizing profits and are you maximizing outcomes has never been truly resolved. People’s hand-waving over that challenge leads to a lot of wasted time and money in this area.

Sin City Goes Green, Philanthropic Investments That Reap Incredible Returns and More

Behind the Bright Lights of Vegas: How the 24-Hour Party City Is Greening Up Its Act, The Guardian
It may be known as Sin City, but that doesn’t mean the indiscretions taking place in the Nevada desert must include harming the planet. A new leafy oasis now offers vacationers a respite from the bright-as-the-sun neon lights that illuminate the Strip all night long. The Park, which features native Southwestern plants, a 40-foot-tall statue originally from the Burning Man festival and large metal structures that keep visitors shaded and cool, might be the only actual green space amongst the seemingly-endless stretch of casinos, but it’s one of many ways that Las Vegas is reducing its environmental footprint.
How to Bet Big on the American Dream, The Atlantic
Despite politicians’ proclamations, the American Dream isn’t dead or even on its last legs. But how much philanthropic investment is necessary for low-income residents to have a shot at upward mobility? The nonprofit advisor Bridgespan Group examined how impactful $1 billion dollars invested in each of 15 different philanthropic ventures would be at reducing poverty. As with any investment, the payout isn’t certain. But with returns estimated at being between $3 and $15 for each $1 spent (not to mention a high probability of drastically increasing program recipients’ lifetime earnings), these are bets that seem to be worth taking.
New MOOCs for Rising Leaders, Stanford Social Innovation Review
Why is it that things are usually out of reach to those most interested? Social entrepreneurs often can’t afford or get to leadership development programs. But now, educational seminars are going to them, thanks to the release of two new MOOCs (massive open online course). Free video classes from Philanthropy U provide students insights from social enterprise greats such as the cofounder of; Leaderosity, which charges tuition, touts among its instructors leaders from The Presidio Institute. Both programs provide access to personnel development that’s desperately needed in this sector.
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Three Big Life Takeaways from Bill Gates

You wouldn’t think one of the richest, most successful people in the world would have a lot of regrets. And you’re right. But, hindsight and age brings needed perspective to any life.
During an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, Microsoft founder Bill Gates offered some choice advice for the next generation of innovators to stay ahead of the curve and lead a fulfilling, balanced existence.

Machine learning is the next wave

Forget Big Data and the Internet of Things. The next revolutionary trend, according to Gates, is computers that learn.  When asked what he would focus on if he were currently a student and what the most significant technological breakthrough in coming years will be, Gates said:
“The ultimate is computers that learn. So called deep learning which started at Microsoft and is now being used by many researchers looks like a real advance that may finally learn.”

Cultivate a habit of philanthropy

Along with his wife, Gates has pledged to give more than half of his wealth to charity. The couple got a big head start with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he spends roughly two-thirds of his time doing everything from solving public health crises in Africa to reforming American education.
“Just creating an innovative company is a huge contribution to the world,” he wrote. “During my 20′s and 30′s that was all I focused on. Ideally people can start to mix in some philanthropy like Mark Zuckerberg has early in his career. I have enjoyed talking to some of the Valley entrepreneurs about this and I am impressed and how early they are thinking about giving back – much earlier than I did.”
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was the single largest donor in the United States last year at the age of 29, giving nearly a billion dollars. And while we can’t all be Gates or Zuckerberg, the web makes it easier than ever to give back to local or international causes.

Better Work/Life Balance

When asked how he’s changed over the past two decades, Gates acknowledged that age has taken off some of his edge:
“Twenty years ago I would stay in the office for days at a time and not think twice about it — so I had energy and naivete on my side. Now hopefully I am a bit more mellow but with a little extra wisdom.”
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Meet the Mystery Woman Who Doled Out Kind Acts Throughout Boston

Blankets for the homeless. Lottery tickets scattered around. Coffee and meals bought for complete strangers. For the past several years, an unknown person has been sprinkling the city of Boston with random acts of kindness.
The generous soul has been unmasked as Watertown resident Cathy O’Grady. As Boston Magazine reports, this kindhearted woman never did it for the attention. “Somebody squealed on me,” she told the publication after word got out about her philanthropy. “I’m not bummed, but I didn’t put it out there for me to be found. But I’m not bummed about it. If I can motivate other people to help out, that’s the purpose of all this.”
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Boston Magazine highlighted a recent project of hers in which she and her friends performed 318 random acts of kindness to honor the number of days in which O’Grady’s friend Colleen Wogernese’s late husband lived with cancer before he passed away. O’Grady and her team helped pay for meals, handed out hundreds of care packages to homeless shelters and hospitals, and even placed quarters in vending machines for kids. According to Huffington Post, O’Grady even helped raise $1,000 to pay for a Disney World trip for the Wogernese family.
O’Grady told HuffPo that she dedicated her life to good deeds after her mother passed away from breast cancer 15 years ago. Her most emotional project yet? The 26 gestures she performed in the memory of the 26 lives that were lost on the day of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting. In addition to her kind acts, O’Grady has a day job as an online jeweler where her creations help raise awareness and funds for specific philanthropic causes and non-profit organizations such as Children’s Cancer Research Fund and the Colon Cancer Alliance. 
She’s also proof that if one does good, others will follow. After leaving out scarves for the homeless, Boston Magazine informed her that a few dollars had been attached to them. “That wasn’t me that did that,” she said. “So how cool is that?”

The Super Bowl Is 60 Minutes Long, But Its Impact Lasts a Lot Longer

Football fans might be disappointed on Sunday when the season ends and the NFL goes on hiatus for seven months. But for communities that host pro football teams, the action doesn’t stop with the final whistle.

This year, programs coordinated by the NFL and the NY/NJ Super Bowl host committee pumped $11 million into afterschool programs. Their donations, managed through the Snowflake Youth Foundation, have financed new turf for fields, new floors for gyms, and other improvements that make after school youth programs possible. Organizers launched fifty different projects throughout the region, including many that are rebuilding and repairing facilities damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

“We know that Super Bowl XLVIII will thrill the thousands of fans watching in MetLife Stadium, but we want to ensure that the game impacts many more people in the surrounding communities,” Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, said when announcing the program last year.

Just like the coin toss, philanthropy efforts are a Super Bowl tradition. Here are some of the people who win, thanks to the efforts of the NFL.

  • Heads Up Football: Launched last year by USA football with NFL support to address player health and safety issues in youth and high school football, this program helps educate and certify coaches, raises awareness of the dangers of concussions, and teaches proper tackling techniques that keeps players safe.
  • NFL PLAY 60: This program is aimed at tackling childhood obesity by encouraging kids to be active for 60 minutes each day. Launched in 2007, the NFL has so far given $200 million through the campaign.
  • Salute to Service: In 32 games this season, for each point scored, the NFL Foundation donated $100 each to the USO, Pat Tillman Foundation, and the Wounded Warrior Project. This year, the NFL donated $455,700 to these organizations. In addition, the NFL donates tickets to military families for the Pro Bowl game and regularly honors them at games.
  • Crucial Catch: This program seeks to promote regular breast cancer screenings for women. The pink apparel worn by players and coaches is auctioned off at the end of the month, with the proceeds benefiting the American Cancer Society’s Community Health Advocates National Grants for Empowerment program, which provides outreach and breast cancer screenings to women in under-served communities.
  • Pro Bowl Community Grant:Every year, the Pro Bowl is held in Hawaii and the NFL gives grants to local non-profits. This year, the NFL Foundation is awarding a combined $100,000 to 40 non-profits.
  • Youth football Camp Grant: The NFL Foundation financially backs current and former NFL players and coaches who host non-contact youth football camps in the summer.
  • Grassroots Grant: Since 1998, the NFL has given $35 million to 273 projects in 70 cities that help non-profit, neighborhood-based organizations to improve the quality, safety, and accessibility of local football fields.
  • Foundation Grants: Many NFL players and coaches have their own foundations and philanthropies, and the NFL helps them out by providing financing.

He’s Only 16, but His Generosity Is Already Worthy of a Movie

Some seven-year-olds’ biggest project is learning to kick a soccer ball, but Zach Bonner was more ambitious at that age. In 2004, after Hurricane Charley struck his home town of Tampa, Fla., Bonner was determined to help people by pulling his red wagon down the street to collect disaster relief supplies. He ended up gathering 27 truckloads of goods, and distributed them to needy families. He then started a non-profit organization, the Little Red Wagon Foundation. Since then, Bonner has been taking epic walks to raise awareness about homeless children in America.
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He started in 2007 by walking from Tampa to Tallahassee. He kept increasing the distances, and in 2010 completed a six-month walk from Tampa to Los Angeles. In March 2013, Bonner lived in a plexiglass box to raise awareness for the living conditions of homeless people and collect food donations—6000 cans worth, which he donated to a local shelter. Bonner’s life and contributions strike so many as remarkable that he’s already inspired a movie, 2012’s “Little Red Wagon.” What’s his secret? Bonner, now 16, told Rich Polt of Talking Good, “Just get out and do it. If you think about it too much you will think of a million reasons why you can’t do it. Realize that you have incredible power as an individual … you really can change the world.”