State of Community Investment and Strategic Philanthropy

In this episode, we discuss the state of community investment and strategic philanthropy; what's working and what can be improved. We chat with Jerome Tennille, Manager Social Impact and Volunteerism with Marriott International, and discuss how companies can go beyond statements and financial contributions to make a social impact. We explore restricted vs unrestricted grant giving and how companies can partner with causes today.

This is part 3 of our 3 part discussion with Jerome Tennille on disruptions in the social impact space. 

Watch or listen to Part 1: Why Corporate Social Responsibility is even more important in business today

Watch or listen to Part 2: What is the future of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging in the workplace?

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Karl Yeh:

Today, I'm joined by two special guests. Our first guest, who is also our guest host today, is Janelle St. Omer, who is the Regional Vice President with Benevity. And our second guest is Jerome Tennille, who is a Manager of Social Impact and Volunteerism with Marriott International.

Janelle St. Omer:

Welcome, Jerome. Thank you so much for joining us again.

To those of you who don't know Jerome, he is an influencer.

He is a disruptor in the social impact space. And with a background in nonprofit, I feel like, Jerome, you probably [00:01:00] have so many thoughts on this particular conversation around community investment.

So, let's dig right in.

The first question that I have for you, and I feel like this phrase, or this topic overall, is top of mind for so many.

And it's how can companies take actions that are authentic and actually go beyond virtue signaling, particularly when we're talking about community investment?

How can companies take authentic actions that go beyond virtue signalling?

Jerome Tennille:


I think we have to get beyond this, the mindset that making a public statement, and then making a verbal financial commitment or pledge to an organization, and then even following through on that pledge.

[00:01:30] I think if you stop right there, and if you don't beyond that to, not just work on your own biases and your own blind spots, or actually getting hands-on and really invested with the community that's being served as equals, then once you stop at just [00:02:00] the grant giving, and you make your pledge now, and then you fulfill your pledge and you fulfill your commitment on that pledge, and then you communicate about it, and you stop right there.

That, by itself can be considered virtue signaling because it doesn't address all the hard work that needs to be done to the person who's... the organization or the entity that's giving that grant.

Janelle St. Omer:

Why is that so [00:02:30] hard?

Why is it so hard to, in some cases, move beyond the statement, the financial contribution, and then we disappear?

Because, to me, from my vantage point, there are a lot of companies who get it right, and there are a lot of companies that they struggle going one step further.

Why is it difficult to go beyond just the statements and financial contributions?

Jerome Tennille:

To your point, there's a spectrum, and there are a handful of organizations and companies that I can think about, and I'm like, "Man, like they own their business. They own their [00:03:00] statements. They own their commitments. And they're like all in."

And there are companies that you're like, "You never unremember the bad marketing campaign or you never unremember that public pledge that literally went nowhere."

And then there's everybody else in-between.

So, I think it's hard for a couple of reasons, right? I think a part of it is leadership, right? I think first [00:03:30] and foremost, the leadership has to care.

It can be a privately owned company, or it can be a publicly traded company where you have more stakeholders who have much more say-so in how the business is operated.

But I think it really starts with the leadership.

Leadership, they get it. They will be on the front lines being bold, taking bold action, not just making their pledge and making a commitment but also even addressing shortcomings. [00:04:00] I think that's a big part of the conversation.

Being able to acknowledge and being truthful that, up unto this point, things have been quite broken for minority communities of all type.

And then also wanting to do the hard work, right?

I think most people, they want turnkey everything.

People's attention span is just so pinprick immediate.

And so many people, they fail to have the desire and the willingness to [00:04:30] do the hard work because it is really hard, and it's a marathon.

This isn't a sprint we're talking about. And then they also lack the follow-through because it is a marathon and it's not a sprint.

Janelle St. Omer:

Absolutely, absolutely.

I think, for those of you who are out there listening, I think that mindset in and of itself on the fact that it is a marathon and not a sprint will potentially help recognizing that this work, in some cases, is long-term work.

One of the things that I've always observed, as a practitioner myself over the last few years, is our [00:05:00] annual CSR reports, where we talk about all the things that we did in terms of our numbers, dollars raised, dollars given, volunteer hours.

But there's such an opportunity to go so much deeper than that, and to really talk about the impact that these dollars are making.

What are your thoughts on that, Jerome?

Jerome Tennille:

Yeah, I think that's true.

And what I'll also mention is many publicly facing goals are... They're average at best.

And what I mean by that is they're purely quantitative, [00:05:30] right? These are either numbers that are, "This is how much we invested," or, "This is how many volunteer hours," which is a... It's an output-specific metric.

But I think too few companies and their partners that they're financially invested in, or materially invested in, they don't focus enough on the outcomes, right?

Understanding their own theory of change and being able to [00:06:00] measure their progress towards collecting that and doing that accurately to understand, "Well, these are the short-term, these are the immediate, and these are longterm outcomes."

And again, it's all incredibly hard for, I think, companies and even community-based partners to do.

And it also requires big brains, and it requires a deep financial pocket to make sure that you're doing that, that you're going [00:06:30] beyond good, right? You can do good but it's also about doing right.

Janelle St. Omer:  

Absolutely, absolutely.

I love that you actually wear three hats, I feel like, in this conversation; as an employee who used to work for the nonprofit, as an individual who currently works for a corporation who is a funder, and then you also have your own consulting company.

So, for me, those three perspectives,

What's working in the area of community investment?

Jerome Tennille:

I think there's very little that's working in [00:07:00] the community investment realm. I think, if you look at... COVID-19 is actually a really good...

It's a good example of an event that showcased, right in our face, how fragile the nonprofit sector financial system is.

And that, by itself, showing how fragile that is and how easily it broke, it also shows how the strategic [00:07:30] funding, strategic philanthropy model within...

And this is United States context, but... United States context, how that specific mechanism of funding for organizations is.

It's very broke. And I think it's broken for a lot of reasons.

I think that the systems that have been created, or that the system that essentially failed, that created the need for big philanthropy, in addition to big philanthropy, that the mechanism that the system that has been created, by whom it was created, it's just a incredibly flawed funding mechanism for community-based organizations.

I think there's very little that's working [00:08:00] .

And I think people are really at the heart of really trying to address the issue of strategic philanthropy, why [00:08:30] it only funds certain projects.

The power brokers who essentially manage these massive endowments and these massive foundations, the use and the expenditure of that money, and what it's funding, and why it only funds specific projects and specific communities.

It's just a deeply flawed system.

So when I think about community investment, as it relates to monetary giving, I'm sorry to say, I don't really have much positive to share about it, [00:09:00] outside of the fact that money is going to community-based partners.

Janelle St. Omer:

That's a fair point.

And I think that that vantage point that you have, and having worked in nonprofit, you've seen it firsthand, and you do understand how some of the dynamics can be at play in terms of funder and fundee relationships.

One of the things that I observed, when I was in the corporate space as well, is sometimes how nonprofits would seek to work with a corporation.

And I would say, "It's okay. Like, tell me what your needs are so we can actually [00:09:30] fund you for those needs," as opposed to, "Don't tell me what you think I want to hear," essentially.

But that comes back to this power imbalance that often exists in this funder-fundee relationship that really, to me, is a reflection of the broken system that has been broken for as long as it's been broken.

Of course, I'm not going to talk about problems without asking you about a solution, so what do you think community investment could look like or should look like?

What should community investment look like?

Jerome Tennille:

Well, I think there are a couple of different discussions [00:10:00] in that.

But one place that I think that philanthropy can do a better job, of course, is again, applying an equity lens to who they're funding and how they're funding.

One of the things that I try to keep abreast of... And even beyond that.

So, beyond who, how, and what you're funding, but even what your... the expectations that you're placing as [00:10:30] a partly agreement for receiving that money.

One of the things that I see very often, especially online, and I look at some of these big philanthropy trends, is that strategic philanthropy, big philanthropy, they sometimes have very unrealistic expectations, right?

Like the grant, the dollar size of the grant, that is going to be given to the nonprofit organization as restricted funding [00:11:00] for as little of a fund as it might be, or grant that it might be, the administrative and the operational work on the back end, it far exceeds...

The cost on that end far exceeds even applying or even receiving this grant.

Sometimes, restricted grants, they actually reduce the auxiliary or the support mechanism behind it that might be more administrative, but equally necessary for those programs [00:11:30] to actually function and operate effectively.

So, when I'm thinking about, "Well, what can strategic plan for [inaudible 00:11:37] do better," it's they can reduce some of that burden that they're putting on the dollars that they are sharing with community-based partners.

And then they can also be much more diverse in the types of organizations that they're serving.

I'm going to use a supplier diversity example.

Where a company purchases [00:12:00] its supplies from minority on businesses is a part of supplier diversity.

You want a diverse supply chain, not just in diversity of material where you're getting your supplies, but a diversity in whom you're purchasing these supplies.

Well, you want to be just as diverse with where your grantees are, who you're funding.

Are these indigenous tribes, or is this a different community that might be overly the affluent? [00:12:30]

So, applying a more equitable lens in how you're gifting money and to whom, I think, is a part of that conversation where I'd like to see more progress.


Janelle St. Omer:


And, in the end, you just touched on something which I'd love you to expand a little bit on. So, most folks think about their restricted dollars.

They think about program-specific funding.

There are companies now, I would say, but particularly over the last 15 years, I feel like, that are doing more unrestricted dollars and recognize the capacity building and the ability for [00:13:00] an organization to use those funds in whatever way that they need for their organization to stay running, and the importance of that from a partnership perspective.

But I still feel like it's a trend that's lagging a little bit.

So, can you comment a little bit more on the unrestricted dollars versus the restricted dollars, and the importance and the difference between the two?

Grant giving: Restricted vs unrestricted dollars

Jerome Tennille:

Yeah. And I'm glad you asked about that distinction because, for those who are not immediately familiar with how grant-giving works, is that there's generally [00:13:30] on restricted funding, which allows an organization to use that funding for a lot of different costs, and have that liquidity and the flexibility in how they're using that dollar.

They can use that money towards administrative or infrastructure or other non-programmatic costs that are absolutely necessary.

And these are things that you might not really think about.

Being able to pay rent on an office space, if you have one.

Being able to get [00:14:00] all the IT equipment for your employees to have an opportunity to access internet and to have connectivity.

Buying a printer, food and beverage for events, paying people's salaries, in some instances, is that administrative cost that unrestricted funding goes to fund.

And so, last year, COVID-19 really showcased how restricted funding, in some instances, [00:14:30] actually was very detrimental to the organization that was funded because organizations that had too little unrestricted funding and too much restricted funding, they were not able to quickly pivot to a more virtual remote landscape, get all the PPE to function, if doing in person, and also oh, by the way, they still have a community that they're working to support in their work.

Without the unrestricted funding, many [00:15:00] organizations would not have been able to make a pivot.

So, restricted funding is an expense that is directly tied to a programmatic expense that an organization might need funding for.

And the dollars that are restricted to that program are to not be used on literally anything else except for what's on paper.

So, there's a great deal of benefit for organizations to receive unrestricted funding.

The only downside from a [00:15:30] grant-giver perspective, if you think that there's a downside, is that you can't control the money, which is why I precisely believe that there is this issue within strategic philanthropy, because grant givers, they want to control the money.

But I think, in some instances, to have a greater positive impact, you've got to relinquish that control. Put the faith in the community that you're funding.

Janelle St. Omer:

So, Jerome, last question on community investment, and you talked about strategic philanthropy.

I know people are talking more about trust-based philanthropy.

So, as you think about the landscape, where we are and where we could be, what advice do you have for companies on how to partner with causes?

How can companies partner with causes?

Jerome Tennille:

Build [00:16:30] the trust, remove the power dynamic, and try to remove the power dynamic as quick as possible because the power dynamic from a company can absolutely influence the decisions that an organization makes, in terms of what they're seeking for funding.

Ask the question, what do you most need the money for, and be open for whatever that answer is, even if it doesn't meet your pre-baked notion [00:17:00] or idea of what the funding should support.

Karl Yeh: Oh, and Jerome, if any of our audiences want to reach out or connect with you, where can they find you?

Jerome Tennille: They can find me at my website,

Karl Yeh:

And if you want to learn about our other conversations on disruptions in the corporate responsibility space, you've got to check out this playlist here, as well as this place for other tips and strategies on workplace and employee giving.

Thanks for watching, and we'll catch you in our next episode.

Question of the day

Karl Yeh: And remember, if you're getting value from this video, we'd really [00:16:00] appreciate you hitting that Like button. And the question of the day for you is, how has strategic philanthropy or community investment impacted your business? And what are some of the strategies and tips do you have? Let us know in the Comments section.

Connect with Jerome Tennille on Linkedin

Connect with Janelle St. Omer on Linkedin