This year at Submittable we set out to revive our corporate giving program. We’d done community investment in the past, but after a couple years of change, including some rapid growth, it was time to reimagine the process.
We wanted a program that would make a meaningful difference in the lives of community members. And we wanted employees to have a strong voice in direction and execution.
Honestly, when we looked around for some help, we found plenty of info on why corporate giving matters, but we didn’t find much from people who’d actually done the work. And building a program in theory is a whole lot different than building one in reality.
So now that we’ve gone through the full grantmaking process, we’d like to share what we learned. There were successes and missteps along the way—both will influence how we do things the next time around.
A commitment to give from bottom to top
One of the best parts of working for a social impact company is that the whole team is thinking about social good. We’re all invested in making the world a better place. And that commitment showed. Employees were a big driver of this program from the beginning. Across the company, employees were vocal about wanting a corporate giving program.
Company leaders listened. They didn’t just vaguely agree with the idea. They took action by making space in the budget, creating structure for a grant program, and forming a corporate purpose team.
An open invitation went out to the whole company, seeking volunteers. Employees showed up. In total, 11 people came together to form the corporate purpose team—with members from every department across the company. This spread was essential. When building a committee like this, you want it to represent all employees. If it feels like an extension of HR or marketing, you’ll likely struggle to inspire and maintain broad support.
“It felt amazing to be part of a group that got to give back to our communities—and in a way that most companies might not necessarily do.”— Stephanie Dunlap, Executive Assistant
Place-based philanthropy deepens employees’ connection to the community
We took a place-based approach to giving. Rather than focusing on one specific cause, we aimed to lift up the local community by supporting grassroots organizations that strengthen the social fabric. We chose organizations dedicated to equity, sustainability, and relationship building.
Taking a place-based approach meant we could narrow our focus to the local areas—Missoula and Seattle for us—and we could help connect employees more deeply to their communities. Since we know technology is woefully underfunded in nonprofits, we narrowed our focus to IT, allowing grant recipients to spend the money on any technology needs.
In the end, we funded four different nonprofits—two in Missoula and two in the Seattle area. Our grant partners are:
- Be:Seattle: building power and leadership of renters and people experiencing homelessness.
- Community Alliance for Global Justice: strengthening the global food sovereignty movement through community education and mobilization.
- EmpowerMT: developing youth and adult leaders who work to end mistreatment, correct systemic inequalities, and strengthen communities.
- Soft Landing Missoula: welcoming and providing supportive services for refugees and immigrants.
“It was an honor to contribute to the process of Submittable giving back to local organizations in the sector. Looking forward to moving the needle in the future and providing even more support for charities in our region.”— Nathan McDonough, Account Executive
8 lessons we learned in the giving process
Creating an impactful corporate giving program takes planning, iteration, and a willingness to ask the difficult questions. Done well, it can improve team cohesion and make a meaningful impact for community members.
1. Employees should drive the decision making
Company leadership must set up the support and infrastructure for a giving program, but employees should be the ones setting priorities and making final decisions.
Build a structure that allows employees to have a strong voice. The best way to do this is to create a team or committee dedicated to driving the process. This team should have a flat structure. Within it, there should be no hierarchy. Everyone leaves their titles at the door.
On our corporate purpose team, VP of social impact, Sam Caplan, led the team by directing the conversation, posing questions, and setting objectives. Then, he made space for everyone to weigh in.
In the end, employees got to make decisions around what kind of organizations to support and how to structure the application and review processes. The team of 11 decided to involve the whole company by giving every employee at Submittable a chance to review and rate local nonprofits who had applied.
Including the whole company allowed every employee to feel involved and connected to the program. But for the next round, we’ll look to streamline the process and get clearer about what we want at each stage of review.
“Establishing and serving on the team felt like the perfect way to put our shared values and corporate purpose into action.”— Sam Caplan, VP of Social Impact
2. Objectivity is not the goal
The application and review processes for nonprofits need to be fair and equitable. But don’t conflate that with objectivity. In fact, it’s possible to be fair and equitable while letting employees channel their own personal values into this work.
One of the best ways to help employees feel invested in a corporate giving program is to allow them to honor their own experiences. Employees need to feel like they can bring their full selves to this work. If they feel passionate about a cause, empower them to channel that enthusiasm into their role.
Embracing the inherent subjectivity in the process can be quite freeing. It allows people to be honest about their personal connection to an issue. That honesty creates a much healthier, more productive dialogue than if you encourage people to couch their preferences as objective fact.
In our group, a number of people articulated personal connections to certain causes. That didn’t mean we were able to fund every one of those causes. But it gave space for people to talk about those experiences and feel heard. And it sparked an important discussion about objectivity and biases that is still ongoing.
Leaning into the subjectivity means that you might have a whole lot of distinct perspectives about what’s best for the community. The key is helping people find where their values overlap and where they intersect with the company mission.
3. Dialogue is part of the process
Creating space and time for employees to talk is an essential component of collaborative decision making. It allows them to dig into the complexities of social impact work and explore others’ perspectives.
Since people bring a variety of personal experiences and values to the work, there are bound to be some disagreements. That’s natural. Employees need a forum to talk through decisions together.
Making space for dialogue also allows employees to acknowledge biases and blindspots. As important as it is to incorporate personal values into the process, it’s also worth understanding the limitations of personal experience. Dialogue can help people see those blindpsots and biases and think about how they impact their own decision-making process. It’s not always comfortable work, but it’s so important—especially in the context of social impact.
When disagreements came up for us, Sam posed questions and guided the conversation toward common goals. He encouraged everyone to share their thoughts. Together, we worked to come up with solutions.
Like any group decision making, it took honesty and grace. Sometimes there was room for compromise, and sometimes there wasn’t. This is where the flat team structure really paid off. Everyone was able to weigh in, and people listened to perspectives that differed from their own.
Building dialogue into the process and being explicit about the intentions of that dialogue will help your team to dig into the more complex aspects of corporate giving.
“Serving on this team was a fantastic opportunity to learn different ways of approaching giving and grantmaking and to read about so many valuable organizations doing important work. We gathered lots of good insight on how to do this even better next year.”— Caroline Simms, Sales Enablement Manager
4. Size matters
The size of your grant fund will dictate how many organizations you can meaningfully support, what size nonprofits will benefit, and what you should ask of grant partners.
There are so many worthy causes and strong nonprofits out there, but you don’t want to spread the money so thin that each grant doesn’t make much of an impact.
Our total budget was $20,000. We decided to fund four $5,000 grants. This meant we could spread the impact without diluting it too much. Since $5,000 could make a big difference for a small, local nonprofit (but would feel like a drop in the bucket for bigger organizations), we decided to focus on nonprofits with smaller operational budgets. We prioritized organizations with operational budgets under $500,000.
We also thought about the size of the grant in terms of how it related to the application process. A $5,000 grant shouldn’t require a big, long application. We aimed to pare the questions down to the most essential information so we could minimize the burden on the nonprofit staff.
As you clarify the budget you’re working with, use it to make decisions around how to divide up your resources and build an application process that aligns with your grant size.
5. Employee engagement hinges on the details
Most employees will only get involved in and excited about corporate giving if it’s easy for them to do so. It’s on program organizers to make it easy for people to participate.
You need to communicate goals and requests clearly. Having a designated spokesperson and a name for the program can help to cut through the noise for employees. Use channels that employees use to communicate other company announcements such as email and Slack. Ask leaders and managers to spotlight the work as part of regular all-company and team meetings.
In retrospect, this is one spot where we could have done a better job. We wanted everyone in the company to have a chance to weigh in on the final decision. But looking back, we realized we asked a bit too much and made the process a bit convoluted.
Take time on the front end to clarify roles and responsibilities within the corporate giving team. Since this was a new iteration of our program, we relied on people to volunteer as needs arose. This made the work a bit uneven, with some team members taking on more than their fair share of the workload.
To help ease the workload, use a reviewing and scoring tool that makes the process simple for those who want to take part. Don’t ask people to deal with a giant spreadsheet or download a whole bunch of files.
“Taking part in our corporate giving effort was a powerful reminder of why I’m happy to work at Submittable – because I get to do good while doing well.”— Jackson Crawford, Account Executive
6. Nonprofits don’t need more work
Your grant application and award process should not add more work to the often already-full plates of nonprofit staff.
These organizations are busy doing essential community-building work, and the more involved your application is, the more you pull them away from that work.
Embrace a trust-based approach. Set up your processes and applications to minimize the burden you put on those teams. Ask only for information you’ll actually use to make a decision, and don’t ask nonprofits to submit publicly-available information you can find on your own.
As we built our application, we made an effort to think about it from the nonprofit perspective, but one big lesson stuck out for us. No matter how low the lift was, some organizations put time into filling out the application and got nothing in return. Since we only funded four grants, we had to say no to dozens of nonprofits who were not selected.
In the future, we might rethink the structure of this process. Perhaps instead of soliciting applications, corporate purpose team members will identify potential grant partners without requiring an application. Or, if we keep an open application, we’ll pare it down even further.
However you structure your application, you want to think about it from the perspective of the nonprofits. Avoid duplicate requests and make questions simple and straightforward. Be as flexible as you can. Rather than asking for applicants to put their information into a specific format, consider letting them submit reports they’ve already created for another purpose.
“I enjoyed the opportunity to be so heavily involved in this year’s corporate giving process. It made me realize how important access to technology is for nonprofits to fully connect with others.”— Jessica Waltz, Technical Support Specialist
7. Technology can streamline processes for everyone
Find a technology solution that makes the grantmaking process easier on employees and community organizations. This keeps everyone more engaged and makes the whole program more effective.
Using Submittable, our team was able to collect, review, and vote on applications all in one place. Nonprofits were able to easily submit their information, collaborate with their colleagues, and get instant updates.
The platform also centralized communication. Nothing was lost in email threads or passed from one person to another. Instead, we could all see the interactions, and pull any information we needed.
Having everything in one place was important for the review and decision process. It also helped streamline the work on the backend. We were able to notify grant recipients right away and request additional information such as banking details and organization logos.
Using digital funds distribution allowed us to get the money delivered as fast as possible. We didn’t want to award a grant and then make grantees wait for a paper check. Once the organizations submitted their banking details, with the click of a button we could deliver the funds directly to them.
Although technology made things easier, we realize there are opportunities to leverage the platform even more strategically. In the same way we help clients optimize their grantmaking year over year, we’re going to keep tweaking and experimenting to find new ways to simplify and streamline the process for everyone.
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8. Giving is part of an ongoing relationship
The grant is the beginning of a relationship with community partners. Once you fund a nonprofit, you want to find other ways to provide support and continue the conversation.
The key for these relationships is that they are built on trust and mutual respect. As you form these partnerships, you want to do so while honoring the nonprofit staff’s time and autonomy. The grant process can set this tone. If you set up your application to minimize the burden it puts on nonprofits, you’re laying the foundation for a strong partnership.
Now that we have a relationship with these four organizations, we will continue to look for more ways to stay engaged. That might mean more funding in the future, but it could also include volunteering opportunities for our staff or using our voice to spread the word about what these nonprofits are doing.
As a starter, we’re looking forward to launching a Lunch and Learn series, inviting organizations to come in to talk with our staff about their community work. And during our recent Impact Audio Conference, the company pledged to donate $2 for every conference registration would go to our grant partners. In total, this gave us an extra $3,200 to distribute.
Evolving corporate giving for the future
Internally, we’re taking these lessons learned and using them to shape future programs. For us, that means taking the time to discuss outcomes and clarify where technology fits into the process.
Grantmaking should never be static. We should all aim to continuously evolve to be more efficient and more impactful. We’re excited to be a part of the evolution.