Cisco Runs Their CSR Community Partners Program Like A VC

In my continuing in-depth look at Cisco Systems’ corporate social responsibility programs, this week we’ll be diving deeper into another one of their most differentiated CSR efforts—their community partnerships. By providing technology, expertise, volunteers, and cash, the company partners with a wide array of nonprofits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community-based organizations—some you’ve heard of (the American Red Cross, Teach for America), and some you probably haven’t. The focus of these organizations is all over the map, but can generally fit into three categories: access to education, economic empowerment, and critical human needs. They are all united by Cisco’s shared vision of social innovation through technology. These partnerships are clearly good for Cisco Systems’ new people-first brand, and from a business standpoint they allow them to extend their products and services even further across the globe.


(Photo credit: Cisco)

Operates like a venture capital firm

Their selection model for partners is what really sets this program apart. I like to think of it as essentially a venture capital firm—doling out cash grants and technology resources to organizations who are taking innovative approaches in the areas of education, economic empowerment, and critical human needs. Year round, Cisco Systems accepts applicants for the Cisco Product Grant Program—supporting both large and small scale charitable organizations with networking technology and equipment. Their Global Impact Cash Grants go towards multiplying the impact of national and multinational organizations, while their Community Impact Cash Grants support smaller organizations in under-served communities where Cisco already has a volunteer force and presence. In line with their overall business-minded approach to CSR, the highest priority and funding consideration is given to proposals that utilize SMART metrics (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) to measure impact. In other words, Cisco is not one of those companies who simply gives out money and walks away—they’re interested in real, measurable results, and they stay actively involved with the organizations they choose to assist.


(Photo credit: Cisco)

Case studies in Cisco partnership

Let’s take a closer look at some of the organizations with which Cisco Systems currently partners. Citizen Schools is one of Cisco’s education-oriented partners. Created to combat the growing problem of so-called “dropout factories” (high schools where around half of students fail to graduate), Citizen Schools works to engage students in education while they are still in middle school. Their answer is their Extended Learning Time (ELT) model, which provides after-school mentorship in low-performing schools. Cisco has been supporting Citizen Schools since 2009 with donations of information and communication technology (ICT) products, and with their help, the organization has expanded from 10 schools in 5 states to 29 schools in 7 states (in the 2014-15 academic year). I mentioned SMART metrics earlier—61% of Boston Citizen Schools alumni of college age have enrolled in a 2 or 4-year college. 71% of their students graduate on time, as opposed to 59% with non-participants. 90% of the organization’s alumni saw proficiency gains in English and math. Talk about measurable results.


(Photo credit: Cisco)

A great example of Cisco’s economic empowerment-focused partnerships is Living Goods. The organization’s 4,000 Community Health Promoters (or CHPs for short) are currently serving a population of more than 3M people in Uganda and Kenya. Living Goods empowers people to improve the health and economic status of their families, friends, and communities through networks of “Avon-like” door-to-door health entrepreneurs. CHPs canvas their communities, educating them on health issues, and selling important items such as treatments for malaria and diarrhea, clean birthing kits, fortified foods, water filters, and more. The CHPs are not only helping create healthier communities—they are also earning a living for themselves through the sale of these health products. It’s estimated that the added income from Living Goods is enough to cover school fees for two or three children, allowing families to put away more money towards the future. The program has also seen a 25% reduction in child mortality in these communities, at an annual cost of less than $2 per person. Where does Cisco come into the picture? They provided early stage seed funding to help Living Goods to develop a mobile platform enabling them to manage operations at the organizational level, oversee the performance of their CHPs, and communicate with community members. With its multi-faceted approach to community development, Living Goods is truly a unique program. This is a perfect example of the sort of innovative strategy that Cisco looks for in potential partners.


(Photo credit: Cisco)

Cisco’s partnerships’ third area of focus is that of critical human needs. They’ve been partnering with Feeding America since 2009—awarding more than $2 million dollars in cash and product grants to the leading hunger relief charity in the United States. 200 food banks comprise the organization’s food distribution network, with 60,000 local agencies relying on them across the country. With an organization of this size and scope, efficiency is paramount—Cisco helps the organization save money by applying technologies that increase efficiency. Their Transportation Management System (which automates many shipping management functions) saved the organization $353,000 in its first year of use—enough savings to provide an additional 3.5 million meals to those in need. These are impressive numbers.


(Photo credit: The Neighborhood Table)

These several organizations are just the tip of the iceberg—the list of partners benefiting from their association with Cisco Systems goes on and on. Their partnership with Digital Divide Data provides IT skills, training, and employment to disadvantaged populations. Another partner, Water for People, developed the mobile-based FLOW application, which is used by governments and international development organizations to collect, manage, and analyze data on water points. Labor Link uses mobile devices to reach workers across multiple industries with information on safety, workers’ rights, and more. Cisco was an early investor in all three of these organizations, and with the help of Cisco, these organizations have been able to scale up across multiple regions and increase their social impact. They are all expected to be financially sustainable through their earned income within the next several years.

Good for everyone involved

Cisco does a whole lot of good, but there’s only so much one company can do all by themselves. These partnerships greatly multiply Cisco’s ability to make a global impact—and obviously, the partnerships are very mutually beneficial. Their VC approach to partner selection ensures only viable, committed, and innovative organizations get added to the roster, and this process has been yielding great results. In my opinion, it’s one of the most differentiated, and effective programs out there. It’s good for the brand, good for business, and above all else– good for the world.