Corporate giving can be about so much more than money

July 13, 2011

By Akinori Saito
The views expressed are his own.


These past few years have been tough on non-profits and community-based organizations, whose funding has suffered because of the economic slowdown.  But there are now signs that corporate giving is recovering from the Great Recession.  It’s a promising ray of hope.  But perhaps the economic crisis has taught us that it’s not enough for companies simply to give cash and contributions in kind to socially engaged non-profits and community groups.  There’s something even more valuable that some of them can offer.

The world we live in today is interconnected in more ways than ever before – across borders, across industries and disciplines and among the various social and economic structures that form communities and nations – the public and private sectors among them.  That interconnectedness requires collaboration, including in the relationship between companies and the communities in which they and their employees live and operate.  In short, it’s about working together to make the world better.  One of the most precious commodities businesses have to share is knowledge of how to work smarter.

Smarter, of course, often means more efficient.  And more efficient means less costly. That’s an imperative in an economic climate in which governments can’t afford to throw money at a problem and non-profits must maximize the impact of every cent to address the challenges they – and the communities they serve – face.  Here’s an example.  The St. Bernard Project (SBP) in New Orleans is a small, independent nonprofit that has rebuilt more homes for local residents than any other organization involved in recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina.  It creates living wage jobs for returned veterans and leverages volunteer labor to put a roof back over the heads of disaster-displaced families.  One of the vital ingredients of SBP’s success is skills-based support from corporations including Cisco, KPMG, UPS and the company I work for, Toyota.

Skills-based support is not about providing solutions to problems.  It’s about providing the principles, processes and strategies to organizations to come up with their own solutions.  In Toyota’s case, it’s helping SBP apply the operational principles of the Toyota Production System – its renowned approach to automobile manufacturing – to disaster recovery.  As a result of this collaboration, SBP expects to accelerate its rebuilding efforts in the New Orleans area by 20 percent, train and employ more war veterans in its efforts and gain the capability to extend its work to tornado-hit communities like Joplin, Missouri.

So it’s not about giving more money, although that’s always important.  It’s about creating more efficiency to do more with the money organizations already raise.

Toyota’s work with SBP and a growing number of non-profits – announced at the Clinton Global Initiative’s CGI America meeting in Chicago on June 29 – is led by the Toyota Production System Support Center (TSSC) based in Erlanger, Kentucky.  TSSC was set up two decades ago to give back to North America by sharing the philosophy and the techniques of the Toyota Production System with companies across the country.  Its work is focused on helping to make substantial improvements by increasing productivity and decreasing costs, always with a unique focus on ensuring job retention.

Today TSSC is a non-profit itself, and does half of its work for non-profit and community organizations.  Among its projects, TSSC has helped a Harlem food bank reduce wait times for those using its meal service from more than one hour to 18 minutes and a Pennsylvania hospital system generate approximately $391,000 in expected annual cost savings by minimizing waste.

Skills-based support represents a lasting contribution to society.  In the volunteer world, the concept is familiarly known as “skill-anthropy” – the donation of skills by individuals like lawyers, doctors and bankers to community groups and relief work.  It has yet to become widespread at the corporate level.

Imagine the benefits if it does.  It can bring scale and sustainability to small, community-based organizations that have increasingly come to the fore in the wake of the economic crisis and the midst of what sometimes seems to be an age of natural disasters.  Applied strategically, it can empower individual social entrepreneurs to do even greater things.  It can make the way services are delivered through hospitals, schools and relief organizations better, more efficient and, ultimately, less costly.  And it can give back in a way that money alone cannot.

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