The Power To Empower

AUGUST 7, 2007

By bizSanDiego.com

Skip to UCSD's mention

Large local companies are taking charitable giving and corporate responsibility seriously, which is saving lives, opening up new avenues of opportunity and convincing small and medium-size companies to follow suit

British comedy troupe Monte Python performed a skit in the 1983 film, The Meaning of Life, that portrayed the corporate world as pirates. An accounting firm is seen as a slave ship, which is overthrown and sets sail to take on the financial centers of the world. The skit, filled with swashbuckling action in the form of ceiling-fan sword fights and the firing of filing-cabinet cannons elicits an all-too-often-felt sentiment that businesses are agents of destruction, not agents of social change.

However, while a few select corporations have crossed ethical boundaries, and many others have contributed to real-world problems like global warming and "unfair" trade, businesses across the nation are hardly pirate ships seeking to obliterate the environment, ignore social ills and use hostile takeover strategies.

But there is a war being waged, and the battlefield is steadily growing.

Mission Alignment

Bill Trumpfheller is not one to hold back. The president of Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Public Relations, headquartered in downtown San Diego, says that an increasing number of companies are fighting social injustice and environmental harm, giving back to the community and making smarter decisions based on what's responsible and what is not. But he's honest in saying that part of the reason companies are more conscious "comes down to the erosion of trust in corporate America."

So to regain that trust, Trumpfheller continues, companies are "getting actively involved in the charitable activities that their customers are involved in or engaged in. A lot of companies that market to women have gotten involved in breast cancer activities because it's a way to tie the company into a cause that's important to women."

Amylin Pharmaceuticals, which discovers new medicines for the treatment of diabetes and metabolic diseases, is a prime example of the aforementioned strategy, which is easily described as aligning corporate responsibility with the mission and values of the company.

Amylin's core mission is to improve the health and wellbeing of society. So, will you see the San Diego-based life sciences company supporting the arts? Well, that's a possibility down the road, says Julia Brown, adviser to the CEO at Amylin, but for now the majority of its support is flowed toward organizations that are important to diabetes and science education.

Take UCSD. The school has long been recognized locally, nationally and even internationally for the role it has played in fostering growth of the technology and life sciences clusters in and outside of San Diego County. The role that UCSD has played in life sciences development, in particular, gave the school an initial edge up to attract financial support from Amylin. The company sponsors the Grey Matters public lecture series, which consistently draws capacity crowds of more than 300 and is broadcast to millions. Amylin also gives summer research scholarships to six students and donates to A Thousand Teachers, A Million Minds, an initiative to quadruple the number of science and math teachers that UCSD graduates.

But Amylin's support hardly ends with writing checks to the school.

Incoming company CEO Dan Bradbury is serving as the co-chair of the Preuss Classic Cars for Classic Kids benefit. Brown serves on the Preuss School's Founders Circle, a support and advisory group to the school. And the company provides support for many student-organized events, including the Bioengineering Quiz Bowl and the Career Services Interviewing Skills Workshop.

It doesn't hurt that Amylin will likely see a real-world payoff to its investment of time, money and resources. "UCSD plays a very important role in developing the human capital and talent pool that we need," says Brown.

Rebecca Newman, associate vice chancellor for development at UCSD, says that corporate responsibility obviously starts at the top, and has nothing but praise for Amylin and other major companies like Qualcomm and Cymer that continue to give school programs the fuel they need to keep the fire burning. But it's not just the corporate giants that are keeping the school's momentum going.

And thank goodness, because as Newman points out, "Excellence always has an insatiable appetite. There are always needs, and it's not just in terms of hard dollars, but also needs for in-kind contributions. High-tech and biotech companies tend to turn over their equipment every few years, whereas at a university, you're lucky if you can refurbish a lab every 15 to 20 years. So we're more than happy to have equipment a company considers old."

Visible Impacts

Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino in Lakeside, much like Amylin, aligns its corporate responsibility with its values. Its scope is much broader though, supporting everything from organizations providing for the needs of women and children to supporting health and wellness and the environment.

As Maylette Garces, executive director of marketing at Barona, says, "The Barona Band of Mission Indians for thousands of years has had a tradition of sharing within their community. That's how the tribe existed. So Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino has adopted the tribe's tradition of sharing within the larger community, which for us is primarily the San Diego community."

Much of its giving and support is kept under wraps. In 2006, for example, more than 600 organizations benefited from Barona's goodwill - to the tune of $2.5 million between the resort and casino operations and the tribe - but only a very small percentage of those were visible. Like the old adage: It's better to give than to receive. But Barona does choose to showcase its philanthropy center stage, partly for its image, sure, but mostly to be a positive example for other local companies.

According to Garces, "We do what we can when we can to involve other companies to give back to organizations we support."

An example: Barona is a strong supporter of the Foundation for Women, which works with women in San Diego County and even in Africa, giving them micro-credit loans to start their own businesses. Barona reached out to local companies at a dinner event to donate money.

And Garces is still on the prowl. "For goodness sake, $25 helps open a business in Africa," she pleads. "It's such a little amount that in turn is a big help."

And why wouldn't companies want to do the right thing by their employees, their shareholders, their customers, their community and their world?

Not adopting corporately responsible initiatives could be nearly as bad as an Enron-type ethical departure, because, for example, customers are becoming more and more savvy. As Nuffer's Trumpfheller says, "They're more likely to say, this product is supporting breast cancer, so I'm going to buy it instead of the product that doesn't [support breast cancer]."

The Employee Connection

Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Diego County provides one-to-one youth mentoring, and it has proven to have a positive influence on the county's youth. According to a 2005 survey completed by parents, volunteers and teachers involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters' Bigs in School, High School Bigs and Operation Bigs programs, 89% of youth increased their overall self-confidence, 68% improved their aca-demic performance, 74% behaved better in class and 57% were better able to avoid substance abuse.

This year alone, Big Brothers Big Sisters' San Diego office is on track to serve 1,400 children throughout the county. Impressive, yes, but Tina Rose, marketing director of the nonprofit, is geared up to cast the net out further.

"Our agency is built to grow to scale," says Rose, "so as soon as we receive dollars, we can convert those into more children served. Companies are directly impacting the future of San Diego."

Currently, local companies like Jack in the Box, LPL Financial, Cohn Restaurant Group and Bumble Bee Foods have provided a financial backbone for the organization. And, as the relationship with these companies has progressed - particularly in the case of Jack in the Box and LPL Financial, though Rose hardly discounts what Cohn Restaurant Group and Bumble Bee have done - employees start to volunteer as mentors.

Truth be told, giving is addictive. Cheryl Navalesi, vice president of development of Big Brothers Big Sisters, has seen the excitement and appreciation employees have for the corporations that empower them to get involved with philanthropic pursuits and giving back.

"I hear more and more out in the community about employees feeling really prideful that their companies are starting to encourage them to get involved in the community," says Navalesi, adding that there has been a noticeable trickle-down effect from large corporations in town setting positive examples on the giving-back front.

Bottom line: Sometimes, there is no harm in being a follower.

Oldie But GOODIE

A 2004 study by the Boston-based research company Cone tells it like it is: Don't adopt good corporate practices, and your days are likely numbered. The Cone research, which was conducted over a decade, showed that American attitudes toward a negative corporate image would have a severe impact.

81% would speak out against the company among family and friends
80% would consider selling investment in that company's stock
80% would refuse to invest in that company's stock
75% would refuse to work at that company
73% would boycott that company's products services
67% would be less loyal to their job at that company