An Interview about CSR with Aili Reome, Global Social Advocacy Manager
What does corporate social responsibility (CSR) look like when done correctly? CGC recently had the opportunity to sit down with Aili Reome, Global Social Advocacy Manager at the Caterpillar Foundation, in Washington, D.C. to discuss their approach to what they call “Corporate Social Innovation,” their Together.Stronger, platform, and how they have achieved success around the world along with their nonprofit partners.
Q: Tell us about your role with the Caterpillar Foundation.
I lead our advocacy portfolio and manage some of our larger, strategic partnerships. In particular, we have been working with strong advocacy partners like the ONE Campaign, Global Poverty Project, United Nations Foundation, etc. on grassroots support for attacking poverty.
Q: Can you briefly describe the mission of the foundation and the key areas of focus?
Since 1952, the Caterpillar Foundation has been dedicated to transforming lives in the communities where we live and work around the world. Together with our partners, we champion programs that support education, environment and basic human needs – which help people help themselves out of poverty. The Caterpillar Foundation has contributed more than $685 million to help make sustainable progress possible around the world.
The Caterpillar Foundation believes that no one organization or individual can end extreme poverty. That’s why we created Together.Stronger. This collaborative impact platform unites business, non-profits, governments and citizens to combine their strengths to help 50 million people rise out of poverty by 2020.
Q: How big is the team that specifically works on the foundation?
We have a small, but mighty team of nine at the Caterpillar Foundation.
Q: You’ve got some incredible non profit partners (American Red Cross, United Way, Water.org, etc.) What are the most important characteristics you look for when choosing partner organizations?
At a high level, the characteristics we look at are impact, outcomes, and ability to collaborate. Our platform Together.Stronger. is all about working together to accomplish the same goal.
Additionally, we consider each charitable gift as an investment and not a “donation.” Therefore, we expect a philanthropic return on investment for every dollar we invest in a program or service. An organization’s ability to measure their work is critically important. My colleagues, who manage our grants portfolio, spend many hours consulting with our non-profit partners to ensure that organizations are attacking the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms.
Q: What are some common red flags that you see when organizations are applying for a grants?
We look for organizations with healthy financial performance and reasonable administrative costs – so if those are out of line this could cause a flag.
Additionally, we have a strong focus on alignment to our mission and ask for measurable outcomes. If an organization is unable provide measurable outcomes – this is a flag.
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest strengths of the Caterpillar Foundation that set it apart from other CSR initiatives?
At the Caterpillar Foundation, we refer to our work as “Corporate Social Innovation” – a different way of looking at philanthropy and the business together. The Caterpillar Foundation focuses on human infrastructure – making sure people have their basic human needs met – they have access to education – and they are ready to work. Caterpillar the company focuses on the physical and societal infrastructure – things like roads, bridges and access to energy. When people are able to be educated and go to work, they need things like roads and bridges.
So, the Foundation’s work help build strong communities and the company helps build strong economies. Together, the Foundation’s work and the company’s work are interdependent. And the end result is strong, sustainable economies and communities.
Q: Can you give a recent example of a successful partnership and what made it so outstanding?
The Caterpillar Foundation has been a partner with Habitat for Humanity for a number of years and have invested grants across nine communities in the United States (Tucson, Arizona; Hartford, Connecticut; Miami, Florida; Peoria, Illinois; Franklin, Indiana; Raleigh, North Carolina; Houston, Texas; Victoria, Texas; and Menominee, Wisconsin) and in Thailand.
What makes this partnership outstanding is our employees’ involvement.
Caterpillar employees at the Morton, Illinois, facility sponsored a Habitat for Humanity house for a deserving family in the local community. Approximately 500 employees across the facility volunteered their time and talents over a 10-week period to build the house.
Q: What is your favorite part of working for such a large and impactful corporate foundation?
Seeing programs in action and the impact to the end client(s). For instance, families who now have access to clean water or safer sanitary conditions, students that now have a strong bench of mentors and teachers, women entrepreneurs that have paid back their loans and now have a thriving business, etc.). In partnership, with our non-profit partners, I’m inspired by our global impact on a daily basis.
Q: What is the biggest challenge that you face in your work?
There are so many complicated facets to poverty (e.g. income, literacy, education, etc.) that it can feel overwhelming. However, focusing on the root causes – for me – help narrow our focus. Additionally, there is this constant urgency to try to move faster in order to positively impact as many people as possible with our work.
In a broader context, I think we have some untapped resources with our employees who are very generous with their money and time. Being able to formalize and mobilize our volunteerism program would mean we could better leverage our partnerships.
Q: If you could offer any advice to a smaller company looking to start their own foundation or CSR initiative, what would it be?
Resources (time and money) will always be a constraint. Thus, having specific areas of focus that align with your mission and vision are critical. Good luck & go get ‘em.
Aili Reome joined Caterpillar in 2007 and has held a variety of communications and external relations positions. In August 2014, Aili joined the Caterpillar Foundation in a newly created role within Global Government & Corporate Affairs Division. Aili’s position focuses on transforming Caterpillar’s position from a traditional corporate foundation to a strategic leader in the corporate social innovation sector. This move toward innovative philanthropy will extend Caterpillar’s focus on helping solve significant global problems in energy, education, poverty and sustainable progress through advocacy. Aili is based in Washington, DC.
Aili holds a Masters of Business Administration degree with an emphasis in Marketing from Bradley University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Marketing and Public Relations from Illinois State University.
Aili enjoys travel, fashion and collects milk glass and Polaroid cameras.
All images courtesy of TogetherStronger.com