Economic Literacy Colorado's Debbie Pierce on DBJ's Table of Experts

Economic Literacy Colorado President Debbie Pierce was featured with four other nonprofit leaders in the June 17 issue of Denver Business Journal.

Question: What benefits can a business receive in exchange for supporting a nonprofit?

BRIAN VOGT, Denver Botanic Gardens: There’s the usual: notoriety, branding, and advertising support as a result of their support of a nonprofit. You can build and reward clientele or reward employees by engaging in activities with them. But, the most important benefit to a business is that it will grow their citizenship. I don’t think we can talk enough about what it means to be a citizen either as an individual or a business. For a business that wants to be a good citizen in its community, it means not just producing or creating wealth. It means supporting nonprofits that are solving problems or bringing a net positive to the area where all their people live.

RENNY FAGAN, Colorado Nonprofit Association: A couple of years ago we did a survey of metro area businesses about their partnerships with nonprofits. We had a question that asked about the benefits to business and, in addition to what Brian mentioned, we found employee retention, recruitment and employee satisfaction were important parts of community involvement and involvement with nonprofits, particularly with the millennial generation.

STUART DAVIE, Goodwill Industries of Denver: It depends on the nonprofit. The value we propose to corporations is being good citizens. Because we are a workforce development agency, we also provide raw material for those companies. Especially in an age of 2.9 percent unemployment, we have relationships with companies that are struggling to find people and we train and provide those people. In our case, it happens to be a double benefit because we work with people who have barriers to employment. If we can get them in and reestablished, we have them contributing to the community again.

Q: How can nonprofits engage corporate partner employees in ways that are less traditional than “hands-on/roll up your sleeves” work?

CHUCK THOMPSON, CBR YouthConnect: Let’s consider the citizenship theme that Brian mentioned. Children and youth are continually observing their parents. I think it’s important to know that when a corporate employee volunteers, they are a model to others and especially to their own children and families. As parents share and tell stories about their volunteering, they are helping the theme of citizenship ripple down through the generations. Also, it’s important to engage our corporate partners on a personal level. Even in the midst of a group of 30-40 people, it’s important to have one-on-one conversations with them – ask about their lives and interests. These kinds of conversations engage them and help build genuine commitment and connection.

DEBBIE PIERCE, Economic Literacy Colorado: Our primary focus has been professional development for teachers, so volunteer opportunities just weren’t available. However, we’re finding corporations that support us are looking for ways to engage their employees. Last year we developed a volunteer program for our “Stock Market Experience” simulation, which invites financial professionals to support teachers and students in various ways – being a classroom speaker, offering expertise to a teacher or student, serving as a program liaison, and more. It’s been a valuable experience for everyone involved.

FAGAN: I think nonprofits and businesses really benefit from developing long-term relationships versus just a transactional relationship. The nonprofit is often stereotyped as asking for something and hoping they’ll get it – then asking again for the same or similar thing next year. Really, to enrich these experiences and move past that, nonprofits should be establishing partnerships that support each other’s missions in an overlapping way. Think about all the skills and talents businesses and individual employees have. Start with membership on nonprofit boards of directors. It’s important to have business involvement from many different kinds of businesses and professionals including those with expertise in finance, marketing, legal, IT and product development.

DAVIE: We run mentoring programs in high schools, and bring people in from the community to talk to juniors and seniors. Many of these students have challenges because they don’t have permanent addresses or they’re from fragmented families or things like this. Just listening to how Brian [Vogt], for example, got to the place he is would be hugely impactful. As an employee of an organization, if you go in and spend an hour, you make a direct contribution to that community. And you give that student direction in life. If you positively impact a high school senior, you’ve got 40 years of realizable potential.

VOGT: Don’t underestimate the power of rolling up your sleeves. We have a lot of people stuck in office buildings day-in and day-out. We have corporate partners that bring out a hundred employees in one go to the Gardens. There’s something about physical labor in the open air that refreshes the soul. On the other side, one of the things we are seeing in society is a detachment or lessening of fidelity between an individual and all kinds of institutions, whether it’s government, religion or corporate. We have a lot of people who pop in, get bored after an hour and quit. That’s always so shocking to me, but it becomes the wonderful challenge: How do we make this a richer and better experience? How do we make it something where they will go home and have a conversation about it?

Q: How is the role of the nonprofit in the community changing? What are social enterprises?

DAVIE: Entities like ours exist because there is a social or community need. That’s the same now as it was 50 years ago. We have the challenges of any for-profit organization and we have to be very cognizant of all the areas we are involved in. You need to look at what you provide to the community and ensure that you’re current to the demand that is out there. In our case, we prepare students to graduate high school and go onto college, but there is a big demand for jobs that don’t need a four-year degree. Electricians, plumbers, carpenters. We need to orient our programs in line for that as well.

The other side of that is social enterprise. We are running a business, an enterprise, and we need to focus on the social side, on what goes back into the community. Part of the way you deal with that is make sure your revenue stream is appropriate. That philanthropic dollar pie seems to shrink every year and there are more nonprofits trying to get a bigger share of a smaller pie. In our case, 90 percent of our revenue comes from our retail stores. We are too dependent on that revenue stream.

THOMPSON: Non-profits are like sail boats -- always adjusting our sails to fit shifting winds. When the Federal Deficit Reduction Act was passed in 2006, we knew that funding for our 50 year residential program would come to an end. This meant selling our campus, developing new home-based and community services and changing our brand from Colorado Boys Ranch to CBR YouthConnect. Yet, the biggest challenge was helping our donors understand all this. They loved going to the campus and interacting with kids. We had to reassure them their beloved CBR is still alive and making a great impact, yet in some new ways.

FAGAN: The need for collaboration is more emphasized and necessary for nonprofits in order to be more impactful and bring more resources together. Entrepreneurs are becoming philanthropists and they have a different view of philanthropy than the previous generation. They want to see outcomes, measurements, metrics and a valuation to the work. Our demographics and economy are also changing. Nonprofits have always been at the intersection of individualized community behavior and economics, government and business.

VOGT: We always have ebbs and flows. Sometimes you find yourself on the wrong side of that. With so much awareness of the global environment, Gardens have become quite impactful centerpieces across the country. When I talk to people about the Gardens now, they might be visiting for aesthetic or spiritual reasons, but I think they see our role in the community as much deeper than that. We have a whole area of social responsibility now in our departments and we are rolling that out in ways to reach into the community. Really creative things are happening as a result.

PIERCE: Colorado is a “local-control” state, so each school district has a great degree of freedom for meeting Colorado’s standards, which do not require economics or personal finances to be offered as a class. Recently, a northern school district board decided to make financial literacy a required class to graduate. A few months later, a district adjacent to them decided that economics was no longer required. I’ve yet to meet a parent who does not want their child to be equipped with this knowledge, and most assume they are learning it in school. We need to create more awareness in the community while continuing to educate and support teachers whose time is so valuable.

Q: Can you discuss the dynamic where some corporations have shifted how they select charities, from committee-led to employee-led (based on what charities the employees are involved with)?

PIERCE: Larger corporations seem to be shifting their selection process to employees. They have good reason and it’s valuable for employees to have a say. The challenge is that smaller nonprofits don’t have as much exposure in the community. We’re looking to engage with small- and medium-sized businesses where the leaders have likely succeeded due to opportunities they’ve capitalized upon, which is a concept we emphasize in our classes.

DAVIE: From our side of things, it’s an irony because the Goodwill name is known so well. Once it becomes an employee-led decision, people only think of it as a thrift store operator and not a workforce development agency. In order to get that across, it’s better when it’s a company-led committee because you have an unlimited number of people to collaborate with. I think the employee-led choice is a tremendous move. It just makes it difficult for us to get to the number of people we need to get to.

FAGAN: A lot of times people don’t realize organizations like the Denver Botanic Gardens or other staples in the community are actually a nonprofit. Employee-led decisions are good for a business’ goals, but the employees need to have awareness of many kinds of nonprofits and the ways to find them. One thing to always remember is that we live in a world of many choices. How do we, as nonprofits, make those choices easy and available to connect to employees, particularly those in the mid to small businesses?

Q: How can time-limited opportunities vs. long-term commitments attract more involvement from the business community?

THOMPSON: Time is our most precious commodity. We are in a very fast-paced and busy society and culture. Because business volunteers have busy lifestyles, we need to find ways they can get involved that lesson their sacrifice of time and disruption to their schedules.

Three different things have come to my mind.

  • Personal meaning. We know people are driven by a sense of personal meaning. It’s incumbent upon us to create short, impactful experiences and then give them the recognition and feedback.
  • Convenience. People don’t want their time wasted. How we engage them has to be well-organized with a starting time and ending time that is adhered to.
  • Time limited. Many people prefer to get involved in something that has a beginning and end without long-term commitments. We found this with employees of major industries who will jump 100% into one of our events – once a year only. It fits their lifestyle and interests. I’ve come to believe that’s great. It’s just part of the culture.

VOGT: We have over 2000 volunteers and just celebrated their 84,000 hours. Some are here once a week, some only come for Pumpkin Festival. They have a staff team that provides hands on support. They come and give their time and earn skill development for people interested in specific gardening like Japanese or water gardening.

Q: Do you see a high correlation in people that volunteer and people that donate?

FAGAN: Colorado Nonprofit Association has commissioned several random sample surveys of Coloradans beliefs and charitable giving. The last one we did was in 2014. About 25 percent of the respondents who volunteered with an organization also gave their last donation to the same organization.

THOMPSON: There are people who build this into their lifestyle and those are the people more likely to become major donors and provide ultimate financial gifts, which are very helpful to the sustainability of the non-profit organizations.

Q: How important is it for nonprofits to partner with other nonprofits?

DAVIE: All the nonprofits I come across are always strapped for resources; money, time and people. In the area we work in, the social safety net is somewhat fragmented. What happens is there is a danger of overlap and duplication, or worse something falls through the cracks. It’s hugely important that we partner in a way that gets some synergy through the organizations. We do the same thing in some respects; we have people we need to pay, HR departments to run, IT to work with. Why don’t we share services like that?

Goodwill has a career connection center embedded in Step 13. It’s hugely beneficial and it’s the highest conversion we have from people into jobs in our career connection centers. We also subleased our Highlands Ranch store to Habitat for Humanity so you’ll see Goodwill and the ReStore store as part of the same building and we get cross-fertilization that way.

PIERCE: We have people ask about “our competitors” and I respond that we don’t have any. While we might be competing for the same dollars because our missions are similar, our methods and audiences are different. We need to collaborate for the benefit of our students. In the end, that’s what really matters.

VOGT: We are putting together an annual report of our partnerships and it is many pages long with very small print. A couple quick examples:

  • We created a program with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. It supports local artists through a Community Supported Arts program. You buy a share and then three times a year you get a bag of art. We are involved in it because we have an exhibits program and we are always trying to find cool ways for people to connect to all the elements we do.
  • The Butterfly Pavilion is building an audience throughout the south of town. They have a butterfly house at our Chatfield properties and we share revenue.
  • We run the education programs for the Plains Conservation Center in Aurora because we have the overhead support for doing that. We share the revenue from those students.

FAGAN: We are part of the Colorado Collaborative for Nonprofits, which is made up of four other nonprofit organizations that serve nonprofits. We moved into a shared space arrangement and have experienced the benefit of sharing our costs together as well as some limited administrative support. But, most importantly, it helps us share ideas of how we can better serve nonprofits in our state given our own expertise and networks. As has been said by everyone, it’s been a net positive for reaching more nonprofits, thinking about new ideas and building relationships with people, all for the benefit of our missions. B:CIVIC, a business organization to increase business involvement in the community, just recently moved in to our shared space, as did the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts. So we are well on our way to providing that co-infrastructure for supporting nonprofits and connecting various sectors.

THOMPSON: Businesses and major philanthropic entities are helping in this regard. They often encourage non-profits to show collaboration in their grant requests. That’s a healthy thing to happen. At CBR YouthConnect, we knitted together 17 different organizations in our human/animal connections initiatives. None of the agencies could have developed the programs or resources on their own, but together we did.

Q: What are some ways that social media can help forge relationships between the business community and nonprofit organizations? What kind of impact are millennials having on volunteering?

THOMPSON: To me the key word is “story”. Social media is all about storytelling. One thing we need, as nonprofits are our stories told. We need to get our stories out and have them heard far and wide. Millennials understand social media. As a small non-profit, I’m excited about exploring ways we can engage them to use their incredible skills at storytelling and social media. It’s instant communication. To me, using social media is tailor-made for millennials. How can we help them to help us?

PIERCE: My associations with younger generations has been very positive, especially if you’re able to engage them by finding out what they have to offer and want to contribute to your organization. They will also invite their friends. We plan to bring them onto our board and utilize them to develop events that appeal to a younger age group. They’re go-getters who have experienced the relevance of financial education.

DAVIE: We see they want to make a social impact. Our biggest challenge is social media from the other side. When you a run a retail business, there’s always people going to complain and social media is a powerful tool to get misinformation out there very quickly. We have to be careful how we manage our responses.

VOGT: We have a lot of young people in the Gardens and it’s becoming hipper to be here thanks to social media. Late in the afternoon I’ll see a lot of twentysomethings here and have conservations to find out why. This is one of the freest generations, in their mindset, that we’ve ever seen. Baby boomers are so weighed down in expectations. Millennials grew up in a time with a lot of changes, cracking institutions and loosening fidelities, so I don’t think they carry that burden. They aren’t going to lock into anything for the next 50 years. If what they do works, great. If not, they’re on to something else. I think a lot of boomers are just plain jealous about that because it gets to heart of what it means to be a fulfilled human being. For nonprofits, I think the attitude of the millennial generation is powerful, challenging and will sustain us for a long time.

FAGAN: The theme of “I want to contribute in a substantial, meaningful way, but I also want to be recognized that I am growing and developing as a person” is a key part of the millennial generation. They want choices on how to be included in activities, rather than be slotted into a position based on their age or a stereotype.

Q: How does a thriving nonprofit sector support economic development?

VOGT: Economic development isn’t just a schmooze game where you’re handing out incentives to be here. If you have jobs coming in that are low paying and don’t have a lot of security in the company or there is no real connection to the community, it’s not economic development. It has to be about building a culture with that business that’s going to sustain over time. Not just the creation of wealth in the community, but also the people. You can’t build a community without a sense greater than yourself. If you think about places like Austin, they grow their economy based on culture. In Denver, when you poll people in the metropolitan area, it seems they support the cultural institutions and scientific organizations much more than politicians and even the Denver Broncos—hate to break your heart.

THOMPSON: This brings us full circle back to the citizenship topic. The benefit is that the non-profit sector helps strengthen our society and our nation. It makes our country a place where every generation can be successful and thrive.

FAGAN: A strong nonprofit community is really there to help individuals reach their potential whether it’s through direct human services, skills based education, access to the arts or enjoying our environment, among a few. We need to bring together communities around values-based problems that involve us all. This leads to civically healthy communities – and that’s where people want to live and do business. These communities, enriched by the nonprofit sector, will attract the best talent and realize a higher quality of life.