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Creating Enduring Value at a Corporate Foundation: Bridging the Gap Between Brand and Cause

September 04, 2013

(Christine Park is president of the New York Life Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the New York Life Company. Since its inception in 1979, the foundation has made nearly $170 million in charitable contributions to national and local nonprofits.)

Headshot_chris_parkOver more than twenty years as a corporate grantmaker, few things have left a deeper and more lasting impression on me than the professionalism, commitment to change, and caring of my colleagues in the world of corporate foundations. Of course, having the type of meaningful, long-term impact we all aspire to is easier said than done.

Effecting social change as a corporate foundation head can be challenging -- but the ability to make a difference is enormous when you can marshal the attention and resources of your organization, deploy them in a way that is focused, innovative and flexible, and work in true partnership with your grantees. At the New York Life Foundation, we've been able to do just that through an innovative, business-aligned, and issues-focused advocacy approach. To clarify: our approach is not about engaging in Advocacy in the traditional sense -- that is, politically focused efforts to influence public policy or resource allocation decisions on issues where there are frequently divergent points of view. Instead, we practice advocacy with a lower case "a" -- with a focus on raising awareness, education, and public concern for issues where there is a clear and compelling need and little rational dispute as to the merits of the issue. I'd like to share the story of one such campaign.

* * * *

It has been estimated that one in seven Americans lose a parent or sibling before age 20. The death of a loved one is incredibly hard and isolating for children, engendering feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness, confusion, and guilt -- emotions that all too often are suffered in isolation.

Despite the prevalence, poignancy, and long-term impact of childhood loss, grieving children are a surprisingly overlooked group. Awareness, education, and resources -- particularly on the national level -- historically have been scarce in this area.

As a life insurance company that deals constantly with families in times of grief, childhood bereavement was a natural advocacy choice for New York Life. Indeed, the issue came to us through our nationwide agent network.

Since 2007, our foundation has worked relentlessly on behalf of grieving children. The dollars -- now more than $13 million -- have had a considerable impact on the issue. But we are told time and time again that the value of our non-financial efforts -- from raising public awareness of the issue, to building communication and collaboration among grantees, to providing kids and families in grief with direct services -- is what’s really making a difference.

I'm excited about this model. I believe it has maximized our philanthropic impact while connecting us to the business in exciting and powerful new ways. Here, then, are the four factors that in our experience have proven critical to a successful cause-focused effort:

Focus on Strategic Alignment Between the Cause and a Corporate Competency

Personally, I am convinced that it is hugely beneficial for a corporate foundation to make the connection between an urgent social need and a core business.

Smart, seamless alignment between a cause and a corporate competency lays the groundwork for a productive, mutually beneficial relationship. The foundation benefits because championing an aligned cause increases employees' pride and participation in the foundation's work and, quite frankly, yields greater senior executive endorsement and financial support from the company.

Because the issue of childhood grief resonates so strongly throughout the company, we've been able to generate an impressive top-down/bottom-up commitment. For example, during last September's Month of Service, seventeen hundred New York Life employees volunteered at forty different childhood bereavement nonprofits nationwide, while earlier this year four senior executives joined the boards of childhood bereavement nonprofits.

Importantly, the business benefits as well: philanthropy contributes to brand-building in a much more powerful way when it is meaningfully and organically connected to the company's work. And in an era in which brand value is critical, corporate resources are dear, and stakeholders are increasingly scrutinizing every expenditure, that is not an inconsiderable benefit.

Invest in an Emergent or Under-Attended-To Issue

Investing in an off-the-radar, under-discussed issue provides a terrific opportunity for a corporate foundation to jump-start the field. It may sound counter-intuitive for a corporate funder to tackle an issue for which there is not already robust public and/or corporate support, but, in truth, it offers an opportunity to have an outsized impact.

Here at the New York Life Foundation, we have made a considerable effort to build greater public awareness of the bereavement issue, its poignancy, and the need and opportunity to better support kids in grief. The nonprofits in this space are not expert in PR -- nor, typically, is that part of their mission -- but all of them benefit from our efforts to generate greater public understanding and support for grieving kids and families.

At the same time, drawing the public's attention to a salient "new" cause creates a unique opportunity for the company to closely align itself with that cause -- and encourages an ongoing and growing corporate commitment. As the primary corporate sponsor of childhood bereavement, New York Life has felt an acute sense of responsibility for creating greater public awareness of the issue -- and a real sense of pride as we see this happening.

Flexibility Is Key

Our work encompasses a wide variety of partnerships and projects across the sector -- from awareness to advocacy, research to education, from provision of services to infrastructure. The common thread? A fervent dedication to grieving children and a relentless focus on better outcomes for more kids and families.

With an emergent advocacy issue, one can dive in anywhere -- there's no shortage of work to be done. But in this environment, it is important to remain flexible and refine the programming strategy as new insights and opportunities emerge. In short, you must go where the trail takes you, listening intently and without preconceived notions.

The foundation's ability to help grieving children and their families grows every year, principally because we've continued to recalibrate as new needs and opportunities become evident. Openness and breadth of scope have allowed us to work across the sector and deploy resources and expertise where they can have the greatest impact.

Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate

As other corporate foundations can attest, trusted alliances and true partnerships are key to moving the needle on an issue.

Corporate foundations tend to oscillate between a hands-off, check-writing approach to partnerships and a hands-on, "big brother" approach -- but real value can be found in the place between the two. I firmly believe in trusting one's partners. When entering a new field, this often translates into listening rather than advising, participating rather than directing, and building involvement slowly rather than rushing ahead.

Identifying whom to partner with is a critical first step. At the New York Life Foundation, we have scanned the bereavement landscape and have created and cultivated a wide range of relationships with many of the category's best and most impactful players -- from the National Alliance for Grieving Children, to Comfort Zone Camp and the Moyer Foundation, to the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, to the American Federation of Teachers -- addressing the bereavement issue across a spectrum of touch points.

Collaboration with your grantees is critical, but just as important -- particularly in a small or emergent sector -- is collaboration among your grantees. We have made a determined effort to bring together a range of players who may never have otherwise worked together. The resultant relationship building, information exchange, and energy creation have been game changing.

Finally, there is no better way to build trust and solidarity with your partners than to "walk the walk" -- both literally and figuratively. My husband and I have volunteered regularly at camps for grieving children throughout my tenure at the foundation. The experience has been transformative -- personally and professionally.

* * * *

As corporate foundations continue to seek innovative ways to maximize their philanthropic impact, I believe that by investing in a well-aligned cause in need of attention, collaborating thoughtfully, and staying attuned to emergent opportunities, foundations can truly take their charitable giving to the next level. In fact, the only constraint on extending this paradigm is our ability to convince more foundations and nonprofits of the power and merits of this approach.

-- Christine Park

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