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The Business of Social Investment

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An avid animal lover and past guest on Ellen, Shannon Schuyler directs corporate responsibility activities for Pricewaterhouse Coopers. I recently had the honor to speak with the driven, unrelenting and generous Shannon about the role of business in driving social change.

Despite high unemployment, companies are still having trouble meeting their staffing needs. How do you make sense of this paradox?
I think the education system that we currently have is broken. The disconnect has been that most organizations and companies aren't engaged in the education system, so companies haven't been able to convey what skills they actually need for their business. So even though the schools continue to put out graduates, the skills that they have are not the skills that companies are necessarily looking for to fill positions.

So, what would you recommend to a recent college graduate interested in a career in CSR?
Find a company that you respect, in terms of their social, economic, or environmental responsibility, and get an entry level job in the field that you're educated in. Then make the connection points to those corporate responsibility or sustainability departments. Everyone except one individual in PwC's group of 10 has come from a random department in the firm, because they've carved out a space for themselves out of a commitment to move the work forward. So someone from the communications department offers some of their time to the corporate responsibility office, and lo and behold when there's a communications position open the following year, they're the ones who get it.

When interviewing people for roles in your department, what's the most revealing question you ask?
What are you most passionate about? Every day we get calls from people in organizations that have that one cause that they will go to the mat for. When they call you, it's the most important thing you've ever heard of, and they are dumbfounded that we as a firm aren't already invested in it. So in interview, I ask what is that one thing that you are most passionate about (for me, it's my dog), and then I ask them to think about what they would feel like if someone were to tell them that was not important.

Because that's the level that you need to reach to have a respectful conversation about why we, as a firm, may not want to support that, even though it's so personal and important to the person on the other end of the phone. If you can't handle that, you probably can't handle the job.

On the flip side, how do you select nonprofit organizations or causes to work with?
Successful organizations approach businesses on the business level. So many nonprofits are just looking for the check to be cut, not an actual partnership. Those nonprofits that are able to say "this is a business partnership, and here's the experience that we can offer your employees," are the ones that can get the most out of a strategic partnership.

In that sense, these organizations are really serving as consultants to us, talking about best practices and helping find ways to for us to leverage our strategic business model to do socially responsible activities with their people. It's a relatively small group that can actually do that, and when you look at the Taproots and others you say this is someone who gets the business and can help facilitate it and approaches us as if they were a for-profit consulting firm.

What's an example of this kind of relationship with a nonprofit that gets it?
One example of a nonprofit that we've been working a lot with is NEEF (the National Environmental Education Foundation). One of the things they came to us about was to say we have all of these nonprofits that we work with who don't really know how to request grants -- how to document their financials accurately and demonstrate an appreciation for the organization they're requesting the grant from.

One of the things we've been working on is a learning and development series, taking people from our learning and education group, and from our assurance and finance group, and putting together a virtual training for the thousands of nonprofits that work with NEEF in the environmental space to go out and request these grants. So our folks are giving pro bono time in order to work with them to give them additional capacity to appreciate their own financials and to clarify their requests a bit more.

Is that the typical example?
Well it's interesting. We see it as a sort of "three-pronged" approach:

You have pure pro bono, which is really those exact services that we would provide to a full-fee client, whether tax work and preparing returns, or different types of advisory consulting. We try to build those; we just kicked off and 850k pro bono project with Feeding America, building their supply chain.

On the other side, we ask ourselves how can we create opportunities for our people who wouldn't necessarily be paid externally for their services. In a prof service firm, we have thousands of people in all of our internal support functions- IT, marketing sales, branding, human capital, recruiting -- just to name a few -- how do we turn their skills into something that they can use for pro bono?

Finally, how can we engage the individual who has time now given sabbaticals, leaves, or just interest in sharing their skills with a nonprofit organization? Ultimately, it's not about coming in and saying here's pro bono and its one size fits all. It has many forms and is really something that can span your entire career.

Is this the same approach you have seen outside the U.S.?
It's actually very interesting to compare pro bono in the U.S. and internationally. Last year in the UK, for example, they made around $2 million in charitable donations, while in the U.S. we gave something more like $40 million. We are still in a place in the U.S. where the emphasis is on giving money, whereas the UK doesn't give a lot of money but they give a lot more in pro bono services. For many more years -- because their government takes care of nonprofits from a financial standpoint -- giving money just really wasn't something they needed to do. What they do to support those orgs is definitely more on the pro bono side. So orgs within Europe, Australia, even in Mexico we are seeing some of the most significant levels of pro bono, and a lot of that is because how the government has been structured to get involved. The nonprofits get more funding, but they don't have that component of skill. So we've really been looking at those countries, thinking how we can catch up to that.

Disclosure: PwC is a partner of Taproot Foundation

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