The Business of Giving
Corporate foundations have discovered that educating future employees and customers offers a great return on investment
In the drive to nurture a better-educated and employable workforce, America’s corporate community has in many cases taken matters into its own hands. Literally.
Visit a public school in Georgia, and the guy reading to elementary school kids or the woman mentoring a high school student on how to prepare for college is likely to work for a major corporation like State Farm, AT&T, Georgia Power or any of a host of other household brands. These volunteers contribute time worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Their employers are backing them with millions of dollars more to help create academic and extracurricular programs that support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, financial literacy and other high-value subjects.
It’s not hard to see why businesses focus their giving on education. Leaders have a vested interest in producing a pool of trained workers to fill their companies’ positions, as well as fostering educated and financially successful consumers who can buy their products, according to Dr. V. Kumar, a marketing professor at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business and director of GSU’s Center for Excellence in Brand and Customer Management.
“They want to improve their competitive edge – like P&G cares or Walmart cares more than their competition,” says Kumar. “They also want to increase customer loyalty so that it leads to loyalty in the long run.”
In 2014, the most recent year for which data are available, total corporate giving for all purposes in Georgia was more than $194 million. This figure doesn’t include in-kind giving by companies or volunteer hours by employees.
A big chunk of that figure supports education programs. And while this kind of support of K-12 education sometimes raises eyebrows among critics who fear companies may be shaping the information that kids are taught, experts say they have relatively little impact on the actual curriculum.
In fact, most corporate foundations don’t give money directly to schools, but support organizations that work with educational institutions and their students. These include Communities in Schools (CIS) of Atlanta, one of 30 Georgia-based accredited affiliates of the national CIS organization that provides direct support and mentoring to help ensure at-risk students stay in school.
“We are the biggest dropout prevention network in the country,” says Frank Brown, CEO of Communities In Schools of Atlanta.
The national organization was founded in New York City in 1972 and now serves 1.5 million kids in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Here in Georgia, CIS places site coordinators in schools to work with students and provide the support needed to keep kids in school and on the path to graduation. Support ranges from mentoring kids to connecting their families with social services that can help keep food on the table and the lights turned on.
Contributions from corporations like AT&T have been vital to enabling the agency to keep working, says Brown.
“We hire about 25,000 employees every year, and we want to be sure they can hit the ground running and do a great job as soon as they begin working with us,” says Karla Riker, director of citizenship and sustainability for AT&T’s Southeast region, about AT&T’s support of organizations like CIS.
Corporations are also willing to commit serious money to community efforts. Delta Air Lines, for example, has pledged 1 percent of its net profits for investments in the cities and communities in which it operates, according to Tad Hutcheson, Delta’s vice president of community and public affairs.
“These investments we’re making to-day are for our future employees and customers through education,” he says.
One of the organizations that Delta’s foundation partners with is Junior Achievement (JA) of Georgia, in support of its financial literacy programs for middle and high school students. JA’s efforts have evolved from providing supplemental programs to schools to offering sophisticated curricula, as well as its innovative Discovery Centers, which offer students hands-on experiences in how to create a budget, get a job and manage other career and life skills. The goal is to highlight the value and relevance of education through applicable life lessons.
“Now we’re really about how do we bring the education and the business community together in a highly integrated way to re-engineer education to be more relevant and be more authentically connected to real-world complexities,” says Jack Harris, president and CEO of JA of Georgia.
By supporting JA, Delta is helping to bring a new level of business education into the classroom through projects such as the Junior Achievement Magnet Academy at Benjamin Banneker High School in College Park.
“We are a true school within a school,” says Dr. Ava Debro, assistant principal. “They’re learning the same math, science, social studies and English as their non-magnet peers. The difference is our teachers are not only teaching their concept, they are also infusing those concepts of business and financial literacy and marketing and entrepreneurship into what students are learning in their academic subjects.”
Through this partnership, students in the academy have access to an innovative form of education that includes monthly case study projects for business and contact with business leaders from throughout the metro area.
Students in the academy have fewer absences and perform better in subject areas than the school as a whole, according to Debro.
Along with classroom learning, JA also promotes job shadowing, in which students go to a company and actually see the types of jobs that are available with the right education and training.
Delta brings students to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to see the wide variety of jobs needed to keep the airline running. These range from the reservation counter agents to baggage handlers to air traffic controllers.
“It really sparked in their imagination the fact they could get a job in aviation if they stayed in school, studied hard and did well,” says Hutcheson. “There are many possibilities out there for them.”
Keeping kids in school until they graduate is key to helping them then make it to college.
AT&T was the first corporate sponsor of REACH Georgia, a state needs-based mentorship and college scholarship program. REACH has partnered with school systems around the state to pair eighth-grade students with adults who can support and coach them as they move through their academic careers.
“The school systems are assigning the REACH scholars an academic coach, who is typically an academic advisor or a counselor that is already in the school system, to monitor attendance, behavior and curriculum,” says Jennifer Herring, senior vice president for college affordability initiatives at the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers REACH Georgia. “We want to make sure these students are on a path to college. So part of the academic coach’s responsibility is ensuring they’re taking the appropriate courses in high school to be on a college career path.”
Students are also connected with mentors from the local community who can serve as positive role models, she adds.
About 1,000 students are expected to participate in the program during the next academic year as more school systems are added throughout the state.
Herring cites Savannah-based Gulfstream as a good example of a corporate partner that has not only supported REACH financially, but has also placed executives and other employees as mentors in the Chatham County schools.
Like many corporate foundations, Georgia Power has focused its funds and efforts on increasing the number of students who study and pursue careers in STEM fields.
“Our specific focus for education strategy is around STEM careers, and so we are looking at how do we engage those students to get them exposed to STEM and moving into those careers,” says Rita Breen, executive director of the Georgia Power Foundation. “It’s not just [attending a] four-year college, but technical colleges as well. There is a shortage of welders. So how do we get students interested in that, up to a four-year computer science degree?”
Since 2011, the company has also offered its Learning Power program. This K-12 curriculum teaches energy efficiency and focuses on STEM-related subjects with in-class field trips taught by Georgia Power education coordinators using hands-on activities and web-based learning. Since its inception, the program, which is free to school systems, has reached nearly half a million students in 11,000 schools around the state.
While corporate foundations tend to place a heavy emphasis on supporting technical programs that develop skills employees can use, as well as financial literacy that makes them better consumers, they also fund other more civic-minded endeavors.
AT&T, among other large corporations, contributes to Lab Atlanta, a semester school for 10th graders offering an honors-level academic experience that allows students to earn core credits in a program that immerses them in the city and how it works. Through the program they develop empathy, connections and leadership skills while becoming civically engaged with the community. Lab Atlanta is sponsored by The Lovett School, a private, college-preparatory day school in north Atlanta, but is open to public and private school students from throughout the city.
Lab Atlanta’s founding director and director of strategic innovation at Lovett, Laura Deisley, says the program developed by asking, “What if we brought students together from around the city? What if they were bright, honors level, and could do the academics? We brought them together to have experiences that can connect them to the city and to one another. That’s how Lab was born.”
Lab Atlanta isn’t the only trailblazer in the education world. Helping school systems develop innovative, career-focused curricula is the mission of Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL), which is supported by the Ford Motor Co. Fund.
NGL traces its legacy back to the some 70 schools created by Ford founder Henry Ford during his lifetime. He believed students should learn by doing, and Ford NGL has followed a similar approach that allows students to learn in practical and hands-on ways by integrating core academic knowledge with real-world skills, often involving seeking solutions for problems in their communities.
“A lot of research has proven that when you engage students … they stay in school,” says Cheryl Carrier, executive director of Ford NGL. “They get more excited about their education, and they tend to remember things more.”
Other companies recognize that some students need support that extends beyond high school. State Farm is helping ensure college students at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College in Decatur are getting the support they need to stay in school. State Farm Scholars receive scholarships and leadership training and gain experience by mentoring high school students. The program tracks student progress to identify what help is needed to overcome educational obstacles.
“We’re relationship-based,” says Lonnie Smith, State Farm’s HR philanthropy manager. “And so typically we’re looking for fit, but more focused on what type of impact [we can have].”
While big corporations tend to get the most press for their philanthropic efforts, smaller companies are also setting up foundations to direct their community giving.
The accounting firm Bennett Thrasher set up its foundation in 2003 as a way for partners and staff to give to causes they support. As the company has grown in the Atlanta market, its annual giving has grown along with it to $227,766 this year and nearly $2 million since the foundation was established. Today, the company donates a half percent of its top-line revenue to the foundation.
Recipients of grants, who must be recommended by a partner or employee of the firm, have included a number of education and youth-related organizations, such as Noonday Christian Academy and Odyssey Atlanta, a summer camp program designed to help public school students improve their grades and learn to love learning.
“A couple of things drove that idea,” says Ken Thrasher, co-founding partner. “There’s a typical principle of first-fruits giving, and more than that is the idea that if we give off the top line we’ll never be tempted to not give if we have a bad year.”
It also means that everyone at the firm is involved in giving, since those are monies that aren’t available for salaries and bonuses.
Companies small and large see charitable contributions as well worth the cost in terms of the benefits returned. Giving to education organizations offers an opportunity for companies to help ensure a pipeline of well-educated students as employees and consumers. For school systems, the funding means curricula they may not otherwise be able to provide. And for students, the innovative programs can open up worlds of possibility they may not have been exposed to otherwise. For all involved, it’s a win.