Philanthropy Fellows in the Field: Aligning Corporate Strategy and Philanthropy at Capital One

By Ashley Williams

Ashley Williams is a 2015 Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Maryland. Through WRAG’s Philanthropy Fellows program, she has been working at Capital One since September 2014.

She shared with us the new insights into corporate philanthropy that she gained during her time so far at Capital One.

As the academic year draws to an end, students turn a critical eye toward the trajectory of their career paths. Whether new job-seekers or experienced career-changers, more and more graduates are evaluating job prospects not only by salary, work-life balance, and potential for advancement, but also by the prospective employer’s social impact. As corporate social responsibility comes to play a larger role in attracting and retaining talent, companies must think critically about whether and how their philanthropy is benefiting the community in meaningful ways.

During the past year, I served as a Philanthropy Fellow with Capital One’s community affairs team. The experience afforded me valuable insight into the strategies that a major company employs to meet this challenge. Corporate philanthropy is structured around a dual focus: creating positive change and supporting the company’s brand. The most effective corporate philanthropy is a balancing act – it requires aligning the business’s value propositions to both customers and to the broader community in a way that is sincere and organic.

Though Capital One has traditionally done this by providing financial literacy education to individuals, it recently embarked into new territory: digital skill-building. As Capital One works to become both a financial leader and a digital leader, it is adjusting its philanthropy to stay business relevant. Capital One’s new Future Edge initiative focuses on expanding opportunities in low- and middle-income (LMI) communities to build digital- and technology-related skills by supporting community partners that provide IT training, increase computer literacy, and teach children programming after school, among other activities. Future Edge also helps those entering technology-related fields to develop complementary soft skills, such as critical thinking, decision-making and collaboration.

This strategy fills a critical community need – nearly 8 in 10 middle-skill jobs require digital skills, and the number of digitally intensive middle-skill jobs has grown at double the rate of other middle-skill jobs in the past decade. However, it also addresses one of Capital One’s key business strategies: improving customer experience through innovative new digital technologies. Supporting nonprofits that focus on building digital skills in LMI communities helps to ensure that everyone, regardless of income, has access to opportunities that make them competitive in these job markets. And, it also strengthens and broadens the digitally-skilled workforce, from which Capital One is able to recruit new talent to support their long-term digital strategy.

This type of strategic thinking helps to ensure that corporate philanthropy and foundation giving align with both community need and business goals. For Capital One, its digital-center partnerships enables its community affairs team to advance the conversation in the philanthropic community around the future of workforce development and how to expand career opportunities in a growing digital economy. These partnerships also encourage nonprofits to think about how new technologies have the potential to transform the way in which social services are delivered and create opportunity for their clients.

My experience at Capital One has provided me with a useful framework for building natural, mutually beneficial partnerships between corporate and nonprofit organizations. As I move forward in my own career, this learning experience has provided me with new tools for thinking creatively about the natural connections between business strategy and community need, and about how grant-making can increase effectiveness by using a systems-approach to address important social issues.

WRAG Members: WRAG’s Philanthropy Fellows program is an exclusive partnership with the University of Maryland’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. Through the program, WRAG connects our member organizations with UMD students studying philanthropy and nonprofit leadership at the School of Public Policy. Applications to host a Philanthropy Fellow are due by Friday, May 8. Learn more about the program and how to participate here.

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