Behind the Scenes of Corporate Giving: Insights from Salesforce Philanthropy VP, Becky Ferguson

About This Episode

How nonprofits can successfully and efficiently secure corporate giving is a more important issue than ever before. This conversation with Becky Ferguson, VP of Global Philanthropy for pioneering powerhouse, Salesforce, provides key insights and concrete information for nonprofits to consider when strategizing, securing and sustaining corporate partnerships.

About Becky Ferguson

Rebecca Ferguson is the Vice President, Global Grants Operations at Salesforce. In this role she oversees grant-making operations, sets grants management strategy, builds alignment and partnerships, and enables ongoing learning and improvement. Rebecca has more than 15 years of experience scaling social good initiatives globally, including nine years at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in roles making and managing large international grant portfolios and leading strategy, planning and management activities. Her professional experience also includes positions in grassroots community organizations, the Dutch Planned Parenthood affiliate, and UNESCO’s Education Sector across settings in the US, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Ethiopia, and India. She holds a Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina and a Master of Business Administration in Sustainable Systems from Presidio Graduate School. 

 

Transcript

Vanessa:

Welcome to the Social Change Diaries, the show that looks behind the curtain at everything you want to know about the social justice and nonprofit landscape. I’m your host, Vanessa Wakeman. Today I will be joined by Becky Ferguson. Becky is the VP of Global Philanthropy at Salesforce, and I thought it was important to have a conversation with Becky or someone from corporate philanthropy, because I understand how much organizations rely on funds from corporations, but also there are so many questions about how do organizations get considered for grants. And how do they sort of develop those relationships? And I know oftentimes it’s fill out a grant application, but I am curious about what are the other ways to sort of cultivate relationships with corporations that can sort of invest in organizations and sort of be a partner with them. So I hope you will tune in to this conversation with Becky and I hope that it provides some answers to some questions that I often hear.

Vanessa:

Welcome Becky.

Becky:

Thanks Vanessa. It’s great to be here with you today.

Vanessa:

It is my pleasure. So Salesforce is one of my favorite companies and I used to have on my professional bucket list for us to be the event producers for Dreamforce. But after attending Dreamforces, and seeing the hundreds of thousands of people walking the streets of San Francisco, I’ve decided that that is not something that I want us to produce. It I’m much happier to be a participant. So.

Becky:

I am glad that you have had a chance to attend it and be involved. It definitely is an amazing event that I think takes event organizing to entirely new levels, but I’m sure you would have done an amazing job as well, if you continued down that path.

Vanessa:

Thank you. So Becky, before we jump into questions, tell my listeners a little bit about yourself.

Becky:

Yeah, definitely. So, as you mentioned, I’m the VP of our global giving operations at Salesforce, within our philanthropy and engagement team. Been with Salesforce just over three and a half years, but have worked in the philanthropic space over a decade, beginning more in the kind of private foundation realm, and then more recently in corporate philanthropy. But my kind of background and how I got involved in the work really started more from work in small grassroots nonprofits. So, when I think of my first sort of real job after college, I went back to a pretty small rural community where I had was born and raised, where my parents were born and raised, in a rural part of Oregon. And it was a community, I had spent over 18 years of my life there. I thought I knew it inside and out. And I took, actually had two jobs there after college to help pay off my student loans.

Becky:

One was as a waitress in a sort of high end golf course. And I had a giant cookie jar where I put all my tip money and slowly tried to chip away at my student loans. And then my second job, which I think of as my first real kind of professional job, was with the county domestic violence and sexual assault agency that provided all of the outreach services in the county. Pretty rural distributed population and a small organization with a limited budget. But man, we got so much done with that budget. And with that network of employees and staff, and I had a number of different roles there, including running our outreach services and our hotline. And I just learned an incredible amount about my community, where I grew up, about what it’s like to work in the nonprofit sector. And also really about how deeply interconnected so many of the issues that we see around poverty and economic development, and community development.

Becky:

And that really sort of led me on my path, which has eventually brought me to the work I’m doing right now in philanthropy. But it’s really grounded in, I think, a lot of the experiences I had in working in smaller grassroots nonprofits, really grounded in the local community. So they have a long winded answer about kind of what I do today, and how it connects back to some of those earlier experiences I had in my career.

Vanessa:

I guess that your… I would imagine your nonprofit experience guides in many ways, consciously, maybe subconsciously, unconsciously, excuse me. Some of what you look for in organizations around, those that you would want to fund. A lot of organizations that I have worked with, our agency has worked with, is constantly struggling to sort of answer the question around what makes a corporation select them. So we know there’s like the official grant making process that sort of paper, reporting submit your application process. But then there are also those that are just based on the unique sort of position and sort of the mission of the organization, that corporations be interested in them because it has an alignment between what the corporation is interested in, or how they envision the world moving forward. How does Salesforce identify organizations to work with?

Becky:

Yeah, I think there are… There’s different elements of that. So I think in terms of some of our deepest strategic partnerships, we definitely look at opportunities from multiple angles. The first is really looking at, do we collectively, between our two organizations, have a strategic alignment. And is it in terms of the areas of focus, geographic location of where that partner is working, as well as sort of who their work and mission really seeks to reach. But then kind of like a layer beyond that is we’re also really looking to understand from the organization what is their leadership like? Who is leading this organization? Do they have a data and evidence about the impact of their work, and if they’re not established and they don’t have that information, can they articulate kind of the reasoning or the hypothesis behind what they do backed by evidence and information.

Becky:

And then also, I am always really interested in understanding an organization’s point of view around their own kind of growth and vision for the organization. Sort of what are they trying to be and become? Just to understand if they have a perspective, what is their point of view on that? And then the third element of course, is we’re always looking at kind of how does it fit with our portfolio of investments and relationships? Is that complimentary? Is it going to help us understand a different element of the work? How will our resources contribute to the organization’s overall budget and mix of funding? So we’re definitely looking at it always from those three different pillars or lenses. I think also, we definitely see relationships forming, sometimes really organically as well. And particularly through employee engagement. I find that that’s kind of often a really interesting and strong avenue for local organizations to start to build a partnership, or a relationship with companies and corporate foundations in particular because many companies have employee volunteering and programs.

Becky:

So for instance, Salesforce, all of us, every employee gets what we call seven days of VTO each year, or volunteer time off that’s in addition to your vacation time. And we also run really specific programs around skill-based volunteering. So our pro bono program is really designed to connect two of our strongest assets, our technology, and our employee talent to help nonprofits. And pro bono volunteers really get matched with volunteers based on skills and needs. And these, I think that employee engagement angle is an interesting way to start to build those connections and relationships. And that we oftentimes see that growing over time into really interesting partnerships. So that’s a different kind of channel. And I think it’s maybe somewhat more unique to the corporate giving space. Because companies have a lot of employees and especially in our company, our employees are really engaged. And we try to give them tools to connect with the causes and organizations they care about and sort of help those grow into things sometimes we can’t even imagine from the beginning.

Vanessa:

So Becky, what do you see, or how do you see any of that changing in our next normal? So we saw a number of emergency, or rapid response grants being pushed out from foundations and other giving networks. And so just wondering if this is just in response to this moment, or if there could potentially be ways for funders to get money into the hands of nonprofits that need them more quickly. And there was also the relaxation of some of the criteria. So some organizations waive their formal application process, stated that you didn’t need to complete the standard reporting and measurements that they normally would. It was just really more of a focus of, we believe that in order to sustain organizations, they need this money and they need it now. And we’re going to trust them to be responsible stewards of these funds and push it into their programs and to the people that need it. So do you see that there’s a potential to continue on that? Or what do you see with giving over the next, let’s say six to 12 months?

Becky:

Yeah. So I think such an interesting and relevant question and topic, because you’re right. I think, be it profits, schools, companies, foundations, everyone really had to adapt overnight, as business as usual, just really hasn’t been an option. And I think it has highlighted very much the importance of being flexible and responsive as conditions change. And to actually think about letting go of and questioning some traditional ways of working our old paradigms, including, I think ones you mentioned around loosening and eliminating restrictions, maybe on active grants, quickly opening up new flexible and responsive forms of funding. And then looking at streamlining and reducing the burden of the grant making process on nonprofits. As well as I think a real uptick to in contributions to community-based emergency response funds.

Becky:

So I’m optimistic that a lot of these topics are not new to the sector. They’re, I think things that the sector has been talking about a long time, but I am optimistic that this, kind of the convergence of these crises from COVID-19 to what we’re seeing around racial equality and justice, that is sort of taking it from concepts and people are actually putting things into practice.

Becky:

And I’m hopeful that that actually will create an opportunity to then carry that forward into the future in this next new normal. Because this sort of had to go from talking about it as an idea, to actually putting it into practice. And hopefully in a way that will be enduring and carry itself forward into the future. So I am hopeful about that.

Vanessa:

So a lot of companies over the last few weeks after the video surface of George Floyd’s murder, sort of making their commitments to racial justice organizations, which I thought was fantastic. Let’s push as much money as possible there. What do you think is necessary? And again, sort of looking ahead at the future because things as we know, it will not be the same. What do you think needs to happen, or do you think that this may be the beginning of a cycle of maybe rethinking the importance, and the value in communities of organizations that are run by people of color? So there’s been lots of research, lots of data that points to black and brown people not receiving the same level of support as their white counterparts and particularly organizations run by black women seem to have a serious heavy lift. I’m just wondering if you think that what we’re seeing with these corporate commitments may be the start of something new?

Becky:

I think it’s definitely causing people to maybe take a closer look at aspects of their, from a grant making philanthropic perspective, from different perspectives and angles. So not just the nature of who is the work reaching, but who is running an organization, what is the organization’s own journey around diversity, equity and inclusion. And also to look at practices internally to reflect on and act on if there are ways in which unintentionally, systems and processes are limiting certain groups ability to access capital. So I think is calling attention to that. And I think will lead hopefully to more visibility and attention, but beginning with in house, looking at your practices, looking at what your data information tells you. Reading, hopefully to more focus attention on breaking down. Some of those barriers that limit certain organizations, certain leaders of organizations, ability to access capital and resources.

Vanessa:

Becky, what are you most excited about now? I feel like the first six months of 2020 have been exhausting, we haven’t quite turned the corner yet, but what are you hopeful for? What are you sort of thinking about based on your work responsibilities and your vision for what philanthropy looks like for Salesforce?

Becky:

Yeah. And we were just, I think reflecting too as a team about how sometimes the first part of this year has felt like years, or decades past into just a few months. I am hopeful, and I guess I think determined that there are opportunity created by these times to really carry forward I think some of the changes in practices and make them part of our our next new normal. I’m particularly excited even within our own team, for example, about providing voices and opportunities for younger diverse leaders coming up in the space of philanthropy, to be a part of the conversations and shaping what this looks like. And also to really partner with our organizations, community members in new ways, and more interesting ways maybe than what we have done before. So those are a few things I think that make me hopeful, optimistic and energized in these times.

Vanessa:

So Salesforce is undoubtedly an innovator in so many ways. Your philanthropy model the one, one, one, can you talk about that a little bit, and maybe a couple of the lessons that you’ve learned based on how you’ve activated that model?

Becky:

Definitely. I think that as a company definitely believe we have a responsibility to give back to our communities, and have drawn on our philanthropic investments, our employee engagement efforts, and our technology to ask ourselves how can we use business and our platform as an opportunity to help create change? So I think part of it has been that giving back is not just the responsibility of one team or one department, but something we live and breathe as a company and very much core to who we are and the culture. And kind of underpinned by a belief that the success a company and the community are really deeply connected. And that it’s also possible to do well and to do good at the same time. So from the very beginning, 21 years ago, have pioneered what we call a model of integrated corporate philanthropy.

Becky:

So looking at giving time, product, and profit or equity to help improve in communities, and the state of the world. But if we fast forward today, we’ve given over 350 million in grants, and our employees globally now have volunteered collectively more than 5 million hours. And there are over 50,000 nonprofits that are tapping into Salesforce technology too, to help advance and power their missions. So things that we’re doing next is very much not slowing down on that front, but a big focus of our current work is what we refer to as our future ready initiative. And that’s really aimed at using our resources and assets to help contribute to creating opportunity pathways for all young people, regardless of their background, to reach success and reach their full potential. So investing in public education, that’s remained our largest area of focus. Particularly around helping to transform access to, and quality of education for students with a lens on equity for underserved young people.

Becky:

And we have built some deep and ongoing partnerships with number of large urban school districts in the US and then also connect that with our employee engagement work through our Circle The Schools program, that connects employees with the schools and school leadership in their communities, to help those schools with the needs that they’re facing. Now, we also do a lot of work partnering with workforce development organizations to help connect untapped talent with meaningful paid work experiences. And that includes funding, but also internally looking at our own practices, and creating opportunities for young adults who may be out of work, or underemployed to join Salesforce through different workforce development programs, and internships and apprenticeships. That work is really exciting, really powerful, then just a couple of ways I think that we are moving forward in these times.

Vanessa:

And, Becky, do you give to any organization outside of the areas of focus that you mentioned, just wondering if there are any outliers or like, oh, these are exceptions to the rule.

Becky:

I think education and workforce development has definitely been anchor areas, but more recently in the last few years, we have also opened up a new area of funding, really focused more on addressing underlying barriers, six success in recognition that there are a lot of things that can happen outside of the classroom, or an office that impact a young person’s ability to succeed. And that has initially focused on a portfolio of work around youth and family homelessness in the Bay Area. But then in parallel to that, I think particularly this year, we also generally reserve resources for rapid response support. Oftentimes that has been around natural disasters.

Vanessa:

Okay.

Becky:

Hurricanes, earthquakes, but with COVID-19, with the racial injustices that we’re seeing, we’ve also made grants and donations in sort of adjacent spaces in areas that are outside of our ongoing work in public education and workforce development. One example of that, I think [inaudible 00:21:46] did a number of pieces of work around food insecurity over the last three months. So I think it’s a balance and we try to strike that balance of building long term partnerships and commitments and staying the course on those things, knowing that change doesn’t happen overnight. But also reserving some space to be flexible and nimble and support adjacent and kind of interconnected issue areas in the organization. So we’ve tried to find a balance in that, I’d say.

Vanessa:

Got it. And this is my last question. Of course, I have more, but I want to keep you to the time that I promised. When COVID first hit, I sent a note to all of our clients in our mailing less than I talked about the word that kept playing in my head was disruption. This is a disruptive sort of incident, and we can choose to be totally caught off guard and stuck in stasis. Or we can look at disruption as an opportunity to reimagine how we work, how we fund, how they fundraise, how they communicate with their audiences. And maybe there could be some space for innovation within that. Particularly when we looked at the rapid response grants and the shifting of what was required.

Vanessa:

They often, most nonprofits don’t have the opportunity to focus on innovation because that’s, for lack of a better term, that’s not where the money is. They don’t get… Foundations usually don’t give money for nonprofits to think about how they can be innovative around solving a problem. Do you think that we will ever see a time where organizations will be more thoughtful and mindful about innovation, meaning put putting money into the hands of nonprofits, the people who usually are closest to the problem and know better than all of us about maybe how to address or, God willing solve the problem. I think that there is such a case to be made for, granting, segmenting a specific amount of annual budgets, philanthropy budgets toward innovation, and allowing organizations to have that freedom to fail.

Vanessa:

All of the things that we sort of applaud and herald and the tech space is shunned and sort of penalized for in other sectors, particularly nonprofits. And just wondering what your thoughts about innovation in the sector and as someone who is in philanthropy, do you see, can you see any possibilities around support of that?

Becky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s a great question. I feel like it is personally what has drawn me to philanthropy. Because a lot of ways philanthropy is it’s patient capital in the sense that is the opportunity to do and try things that other forms of resourcing may not lend themselves well to. That is, I think what has drawn me to the sector. I think of Warren Buffett, would often say with regards to his philanthropic contributions, that if you aren’t failing, then you probably aren’t taking enough risks. And I think there’s an interesting conversation around risk appetite and the patient capital nature of philanthropic, and money and using that to hopefully try new things. But I think it relies on a level of kind of trust between donors and organizations, to be able to have those conversations, open conversations, and try new things and learn from what’s not working.

Becky:

It’s a tricky one, but I feel like it is the real gift that philanthropic capital can allow. One thing that I’m thinking of is, a lot of our largest investments and partnerships have been with the school districts in the Bay Area with San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts. And one of the largest, actually I think the largest components of those partnerships over the years have been what we call the principle innovation fund, which puts every year, a hundred thousand dollars in to each principle of middle grade schools in the Bay Area to support innovation and opportunities in their school. And really, very much aligned with what you were just saying, sort of recognizing that those leaders are the closest to their students, their educators, their communities, and kind of empowering them with flexible resources to experiment and try new things. And so it’s been a one way in which we have worked to incorporate that into some of our longterm ongoing relationships in the Bay Area where our headquarters are based.

Vanessa:

Got it. Anything else you’d like to share with our listeners? I feel like you are such a wealth of knowledge. I’m sure they’d love to hear any additional tips or thoughts that you have to share.

Becky:

Thank you, Vanessa, for creating space for these conversations because they are so important, so timely, so relevant. So more just a shout out for you for creating those opportunities to have these conversations. And thanks for letting me join you today.

Vanessa:

First of all, thank you for the shout out. I will take it. It was a great to have you, and hope that you will come back again in the future for whatever we’re exploring. I feel like there’ll be a sort of throwback to COVID 2020, and maybe thinking about what’s changed and what things that my guests predicted and what came true, and what was a surprise for us. So we’d love to have you join us again in the future.

Becky:

I would love that. Thanks.

Vanessa:

Thanks Becky. I learned a few things in that interview. I thought it was really interesting when Becky talked about the different ways that an organization gets on the radar at Salesforce. And I’m wondering if that is unique to Salesforce, or if that is sort of a common approach across other organizations, I’m guessing the latter. And I also think that I’m really encouraged by what Becky shared about the organization’s commitment and just rethinking things during this time. I do believe that there is an opportunity to disrupt some of the traditional approaches to funding and the parameters. And so I’m hopeful that these current conditions will force a change, that benefits organizations and allows them to do their work and to think bigger, and to fearlessly think about how they can fulfill the mission of their organization. Without the constraints that they may have had to manage previously. As always, I’d love to hear from you, if you feel super excited about what you heard, please write a review on iTunes for us. Or you can always send comments or questions to us at [email protected] And that’s it. I look forward to chatting with you next week.