Creating a Foundation for Change

April 3, 2008

By Rhonda Mims, ING Foundation

It’s hardly news that consumer mistrust of American business remains frustratingly high. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly with corporate giving at record levels. What’s the point in giving away all this money if customers are thinking less of us? Where has Corporate America gone wrong?

The answer is a lack of focus.

When a company’s charitable giving efforts are fragmented, it’s no wonder that their dollars have scant impact on its reputation. While consumers may see a company’s name associated with a variety of worthy community projects—an after-school program, a hospital or the ballet, for example—they rarely associate that company’s efforts with making meaningful, sustainable social change. As a result, these brands blend in with all the rest.

At ING, we believe there is a powerful opportunity for every business, large or small, to make a real difference—and enhance their reputation and bottom line— by focusing on customer needs and concerns and working smartly and energetically to address them.

The key to maximize a company’s social impact is harnessing what a company does best—the special mix of market knowledge, experience, skills and solutions that underlie its business. And that’s as true for the 10,000-employee company as it is for a company of 10.

Renowned Harvard Business School professor Michael E. Porter powerfully articulated this principle when, in the December 2006 Harvard Business Review, he wrote that “the more closely tied a social issue is to a company’s business, the greater the opportunity to leverage the firm’s resources—and benefit society . . . Organizations that make the right choices and build focused, proactive and integrated social initiatives in concert with their core strategies  will increasingly distance themselves from the pack.”

How does a company go about doing this?

What’s required is a true customer focus. By definition, business must offer products and services that serve a customer’s needs—but, increasingly, we believe that the truly successful business will also act as a genuine advocate for the customer. That means understanding customer needs and actively coordinating activities across the company to help customers address those needs.

In my experience, many companies overlook their employee volunteering and philanthropic activities as a vehicle for expressing and leveraging their business acumen. Last year, ING undertook a self-assessment to better understand how we might align our foundation activities with customer need and our business acumen. Our goal: to better support the business, enhance our brand, fine tune our giving to generate even more meaningful change, and build greater employee involvement and pride in our charitable activities.

We looked long and hard at our programs—from grant-making to volunteering to sponsorships—to assess their alignment with our core competencies. We came out of this exercise with the decision to focus our foundation activities on the goal of “Empowerment.”

Our mission is to create, fund, and support programs that empower our customers and communities—delivering the knowledge, encouragement, skills, and opportunity for a lasting difference in their lives.

Financial empowerment is a particular area of focus because the need is terribly urgent—and closely linked to our business. It is a perfect example of a powerful alignment of corporate responsibility and business missions. Quite simply, ING is in the financial empowerment business. Every day, through our resources and insight, we help make it easier for people to better manage their financial futures. 

We advance this goal through a range of giving activities and community-based programs, including initiatives designed to financially empower minority youth and to generate and communicate unique insights into the financial planning and investment needs of minority women.

We are less than a year into this strategic refocusing, but we are very encouraged by its power to transform the impact of our giving—on communities and the ING brand alike.

All of this is done with the growing conviction that customers are looking to corporations to act in their best interests—and will reward those that do so.  To us, doing well by doing good is no mere aspiration, but a core principle of our organization—and a statement of our bedrock concern for and commitment to our employees, customers, and communities.

Rhonda Mims is president of the ING Foundation and senior vice president of the Office of Corporate Citizenship and Responsibility.