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CH2M Foundation: Corporate philanthropy that makes a difference in the world

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Welcome to the Companies That Care podcast, where I highlight business leaders who are making a difference in the world. I have a passion for companies that care and give back to their communities. The first three episodes of Companies That Care, launched on Earth Day, focus on sustainable fashion, food, and corporate philanthropy.

In this episode I interview two of my corporate social responsibility mentors. Elisa Speranza chaired the CH2M Foundation board, and Ellen Sandberg was the executive director. We spoke about how CH2M rebooted its foundation and invested in sustainable development around the world. First, a little background about CH2M HILL, later known as CH2M.

CH2M was an engineering firm founded by Oregon State University professors in 1946. By 2016 it had grown to be a $6 billion global project management powerhouse, with 20,000+ employees and a thriving, award-winning, and highly acclaimed sustainability and corporate citizenship programs, including a charitable foundation. The company was acquired by Jacobs Engineering in December 2017.

CH2M sustainability and corporate citizenship leadership team, 2016

CH2M’s foundation was founded in 1992 mainly to support higher education scholarships, although little was shared about the foundation’s activities and decisions were made by executives.

Elisa Speranza was a senior vice president and chair of the CH2M Foundation board. She helped to relaunch the foundation in 2013 by hiring an executive director (Ellen Sandberg); rebooting the board; redefining the mission; and identifying three strategic giving pillars:

  • STEM education

  • Sustainable communities

  • Employee engagement

In 2014, the foundation formalized relationships with 10 strategic partners to focus giving for greater impact, and also established a disaster matching gift program for employees.

Ellen presenting a CH2M Foundation check to the Red Cross
Ellen presenting a check to the Red Cross

During Ellen’s time as executive director, the foundation:

  • Equipped teachers and students around the world

  • Partnered with clients such as Dow and The Nature Conservancy in STEM education

  • Focused on volunteerism, building seven footbridges with employee volunteers from around the world with Bridges to Prosperity

  • Set a policy requiring donations to support STEM education or environmental stewardship to align with clients’ goals

  • Broke records for its workplace giving program in support of Water For People

I had the extreme good fortune of working with both Ellen and Elisa as the marketing communications manager for CH2M’s sustainability and corporate citizenship programs, including the CH2M Foundation. Since CH2M’s acquisition by Jacobs, we’ve all gone our separate ways, so it was a pure delight to catch up with them and talk about all the amazing things we did with the company.

Elisa, second from right, building oyster reefs in     Alabama with The Nature Conservancy and CH2M colleagues, including  Sustainability Director Brandy Wilson, far left
Elisa, second from right, building oyster reefs in Alabama with The Nature Conservancy and CH2M colleagues

Ellen is now vice president of client and community relations for PNC Bank in Colorado, and Elisa is a writer, board member, teacher, and president of Seventh Ward Strategies, her consulting firm.

Both Elisa and Ellen are activists at heart. Elisa fell into a career in the water industry and still describes herself as a water geek. While Elisa was the president of CH2M’s Operations Management group, the company pioneered a grassroots sustainability partnership with our client, the City of Fayetteville. (Read about this program in this GreenBiz article, which I ghostwrote, or watch this throwback video of Elisa with her client, David Jurgens of the City of Fayetteville, filmed nine years ago on Earth Day!)

As for Ellen, she describes her role as executive director of the CH2M Foundation as “definitely my most meaningful corporate social responsibility role to date.” Ellen fell into corporate philanthropy when she was doing fundraising for the American Red Cross. She went to thank Western Union for a donation and learned they were looking for someone who spoke Spanish to run their foundation.

“They said, if you know anybody who wants to help us give $1,000,000 away in Mexico…we need somebody that speaks Spanish, and I thought, well, I think I might raise my hand for that one.”
Ellen winning an award

And so began Ellen’s 20-year career in corporate giving and helping foundations get more strategic in their charitable giving focus areas.

I asked Elisa about hiring Ellen and rebooting the foundation.

“Ellen was the easiest hire I ever made…I think within 5 minutes of the interview starting, we made our decision and I think she knew it too…we just started solving problems immediately in the interview.”

Before Ellen was hired, CH2M HILL’s foundation was taking an old-fashioned approach, giving checks to universities where executives had gone to school and supporting the CEO's favorite causes in Denver. Elisa explained,

“After an extensive planning process, we knew we needed a leader who could take us to the next level, and that's when we started looking and found Ellen…We had the support of our company leadership and a funding commitment, which was great…after that we just rebooted the whole foundation and just took it back to the studs.”

Listen to the podcast to learn how they overcame stumbling blocks and persuaded people that this was the right approach. Ellen said,

“I think the biggest challenge was teaching people how to say what we stand for. It's not about saying no. It's about telling people what we say yes to.”
Intranet article about a record year of charitable impact

Elisa explained that we had to set up some values-driven boundaries for donations:

“The hardest part was winding down some of the legacy programs where there had been very little vetting. We had a program that matched an employee’s volunteer hours; they would get money given to the organization no matter what the organization was. And frankly it was a little horrifying when we went through these organizations and they had not been vetted at all. Some of them weren't even real nonprofits, and some nonprofits did not align with the company values at the time.”

For example, they had to explain why CH2M would no longer support the Boy Scouts financially, because their exclusion of LGBTQ scouts and leaders did not align with the company’s inclusive values.

“I think we've seen what's happened since then, and now looking at the news today, where companies spend their money has an impact, especially in social justice issues…more so today than ever…so it just underscores the importance of thoughtful, strategic corporate philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.”

To determine the strategic giving pillars for the foundation, they started with the company’s strategic plan and our company values and aligned corporate giving policies with those values.

Landing a spot on Fortune's Top 50 Companies to Change the World

The CH2M Foundation’s employee board was made up of diverse individuals who were highly involved in different employee network groups. At first the foundation gave out grants through an application process, but then they changed that approach with the input of the board. Ellen explained their reasoning:

“Every nonprofit should have an equal opportunity to make their case to CH2M HILL, and I saw it first of all as an equity issue…it goes back to fairness…we put some structure to it and made it a more open and transparent process, which I think benefited everybody.”
Elisa "tapping in" to support water

CH2M tied its giving goals with its business priorities, so STEM education and sustainable community-building were critical areas of focus. The other emphasis was employee volunteerism, and the foundation provided plentiful opportunities for employees to volunteer their technical skills to build sustainable infrastructure. Elisa elaborated,

“I think a lot of companies do a lot of good with their money by picking a charity or partnering with an organization, but many times it has nothing to do with their business.”

The foundation also teamed up with some of CH2M’s clients to bring even bigger impact, like the CH2M-Dow-Smithsonian partnership to educate science we discussed on the podcast, with Elisa explaining,

“We were able to leverage other people’s money because we didn't have that much money…if it helps you build a relationship with the client, then that's just all for the better.”

381 million people facing stressed water supplies

We also talked about CH2M’s long-time partnership with Water For People, which still continues to this day with Jacobs. Water For People was cofounded by a former CH2M employee, Ken Miller, in 1991. Elisa served on the Water For People board for 11 years and as chair for 3 years. CH2M was one of the largest supporters of the workplace giving program, which allowed employees to give through their paychecks.

Eleanor Allen, another former CH2M employee, is the CEO of Water For People. Employees served on local boards and committees and volunteered their technical skills in 9 countries. In 2017, CH2M raised $232,486 from employee contributions alone, bringing total employee and company contributions to more than $3 million. Elisa explained,

“Water For People’s whole approach is to listen to what people need and want locally versus bringing a solution that might have worked somewhere else and plopping it down.”
Bridges to Prosperity trip

Another strategic partnership was the organization Bridges to Prosperity, which works with local communities, partners, and foundations to build trailbridges that connect residents to education, health care, and economic opportunity. Under Ellen’s leadership, the CH2M Foundation gave an inaugural grant in 2013 to help establish a bridge training program, and in 2014 the first CH2M team built a suspension bridge in Panama. From 2015 to 2017, CH2M employees built bridges in Rwanda and Nicaragua. In total, 56 CH2M volunteers and community members built 7 bridges serving 1,440 people. Watch this video to get a glimpse of what that experience was like. Ellen got to go on one of those bridge-building trips, and she described the partnership:

“You could give away a lot of money and not know what you've accomplished…and yet when you have true infrastructure that is there and is continuing to change lives, because with something like that comes more commerce across the bridge…it means that people can get back and forth to schools and back and forth to medical assistance.”

Caroline Garcia with a young man in Nicaragua
I loved writing this story about one of our employees who made a special bond with a 15-year-old boy in the village

CH2M’s philanthropy programs were closely tied to our sustainability programs, as Elisa gave us a look back:

“This was way before people were talking about sustainability in the way we talk about it now…so it was part of our ethos as a company for a long time and we were doing it in a grassroots way…before we made the brilliant decision to put Brandy Wilson in charge of the program…she had just been doing it without not any authority for a long time, and we finally just put her in charge.”

As Elisa explains, CH2M figured out we were ahead of our competitors in the sustainability realm:

“Most competitors weren't even talking about it, so we benchmarked ourselves against some of our most progressive clients…we tried to set high standards and work towards meeting those high standards and knock them down and set the bar even higher…sustainability was really the first stepping stone to doing all of that in corporate social responsibility.”
Elisa (middle) and Ellen (right) at the WEC awards     banquet, with Brandy Wilson, global sustainability director
Elisa (middle) and Ellen (right) at the WEC awards banquet, with Brandy Wilson, global sustainability director

CH2M earned multiple accolades and awards for our commitment to sustainability and corporate citizenship, including the World Environment Center (WEC) Gold Medal Award for International Corporate Achievement in Sustainable Development and garnering the #22 spot on FORTUNE’s Top 50 Companies That Change the World. Elisa explained the philosophy behind it,

“It also supported our business strategy and wasn't just a hood ornament for the company to just greenwash our way…it was really embedded … throughout the company…we made sustainability more of a core value than just a program or an initiative.”

In response to what they were most proud of, Ellen said,

“I'm the most proud of helping to stand up a foundation that could really mirror the values that I wish every engineering firm and every company would embrace.”

I asked them what advice they would have for others who want to create companies that care. Elisa said,

“First of all, learn about your business. How does your business make money? What do the clients care about? Find a way to tie your work to the business strategies and the company values…and if the company doesn't make money, it's really hard to support all those good things that you want to do in the community and giving back, so do what you can to help make sure that the company is profitable…if you don't make the money, you can't spend it and you can't give it away. The second thing would be to find allies, especially unlikely allies inside the company. Who are the influencers inside the company? Who do the decision makers listen to? And the third thing I'd say is just be persistent.”
Me with Elisa, one of the best bosses ever, before she left the company
Me with Elisa, before she left the company

Elisa was told frequently to tone it down, and we are glad she didn’t!

One thing I’m finding in my interviews with companies that care is you don’t have to be big to have an impact.

For example, in one upcoming interview, I talk with Julie Allen of the Mary Rose Boutique, which has a mission to make every woman feel good about her body. Each purchase contributes to their foundation, which raises money for girls and women to receive treatment for eating disorders. Julie hasn’t been in business for long, but she is already making a huge impact.

Ellen added,

“It feels like the most successful companies that I've seen that have good programs (and I'm going to put CH2M HILL in that category) is that they really took their time and listened to a lot of different voices before they formalized what they were going to do and didn't just march forward.”

We ended our conversation by wishing we were all in one place, sharing a glass of wine together. It was a wonderful trip down memory lane for me, as I cherish my time working with both Ellen and Elisa, working in a job where I felt I made a difference!

Next week I switch back to the Finding Fertile Ground podcast, which I'll alternate with each week. I interview Nono Osuji, a first-generation American. Her parents came to the U.S. from Nigeria. Nono is a writer, producer, and actor. She is living with lupus, which is hard enough. She’s also living with being “Broke, Gifted, and Black,” the title of her podcast. We had a gritty, deep-down conversation about race in this country. You won’t want to miss it.

The Companies That Care podcast is brought to you by Fertile Ground Communications. If you enjoyed this podcast, please give us a rating and subscribe to hear our next episode.

Contact us if you can use some help with your writing, editing, communications, or marketing. With 30 years of experience in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world. We help organizations and people discover what makes them special and help them share that with the world.

Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.


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