More Than Child’s Play: Mattel Pursues Community Impact, Not Corporate Philanthropy
This post was featured in Forbes.com.
Here’s the stereotype: a big corporation needs some PR and a tax writeoff. They cut a big check to a non-profit and walk away, patting themselves on the back.
Closer to CSR reality these days is the experience of Mattel. A participating company in A Billion + Change, a national campaign to mobilize billions of dollars of pro bono and skills-based services from corporate America, Mattel isn’t content to give a chunk of change and wash its hands. On the contrary, part of the corporate culture at Mattel means being deeply involved in all of its philanthropic projects, leveraging employee skills for pro bono volunteerism.
“We’re part of a global movement,” around skills-based volunteering, explains Deidre Lind, Director of Mattel’s Corporate Affairs and the Executive Director of the Mattel Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children in need. This year, Mattel has flexed its skills-based muscle towards remodeling the Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA, with toy designers at Mattel volunteering their services to make the hospital more kid friendly. “What’s important is figuring out how we leverage employee engagement and our skill set to maximize our community service activities.”
Keeping with the axiom that one “think globally and act locally,” Mattel is looking for the best ways that its employee volunteer programs can move the needle the most in the communities where they work. “The greatest impact we can make is through leveraging the skills and knowledge base here at Mattel,” says Lind, in this case, applying what their toy designers know about the importance of play to making a children’s hospital a more inviting place for kids. By doing so, they aren’t just giving kids a place to have fun when they get sick. They’re actively promoting a healing environment for the children treated there.
The Children’s Hospital was initially designed by renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. While certainly not lacking for architectural excellence, the hospital was a typical piece of Pei: clean, linear, white and stark. This is great because it makes for a bright, light place for children. However, the starkness of the design isn’t entirely conducive to recovery. “We know the importance that play and escape and emotional play has in a hospital setting, especially for children,” says Lind. Indeed, the Mattel corporate motto, “We are creating the future of play,” underscores a simple truth best stated by Fred “Mister” Rogers: “Play is really the work of childhood.”
While changing a wall might not seem like a lot, Lind is quick to point out the tangible difference it made. “When you see the way that they have transformed these white walls into a playful environment, you see the change in the children. The nurses say that it has really transformed the way that care is given at this hospital.” More than an isolated case of Mattel checking the CSR box, it’s a clear example of how skills-based volunteerism can truly make a difference.
There are no employee motivation incentives provided by Mattel other than a desire to do good, though the company does maintain a matching gifts program. “Employees were not given additional time or a reduced workload to be a part of this project,” Lind says. “They did this because it was the right thing to do.” Mattel employees don’t generally need much more incentive, however, with the redesigned Mattel Children’s Hospital standing as a testament to virtue as its own reward being an outstanding motivator. “At a time when there were a lot of deadlines and pressures, people were giving back. They had an incredible sense of what it is they were doing.”
Mattel generally eschews terms like community service and corporate philanthropy. “We never use the term ‘philanthropy’ anymore,” Lind explains, “we prefer the term ‘social impact.’ We organize around a social issue and find ways to meet those needs.” This is a sort of outside-the-box, reverse-engineered form of corporate social responsibility. Rather than finding ways for the company to make its approach work toward certain goals, it tailors its approach to goals it’s trying to meet.
And goals are an important part of the process. “Right now we’re looking at what exactly our goals are,” she says, noting that it's important they're both public and measurable. This provides a way for the public to relate to the corporate social responsibility goals at Mattel, but also helps Mattel know whether what it’s doing is working. The learning process around the best way to do good is a key component of community impact.
In a movement dedicated to giving by doing, Mattel is always looking for new ways to engage its employees in pro bono corporate giving. Still, Mattel doesn't see itself as doing anything terribly special. “It’s our responsibility as a corporate citizen," says Lind.
This commitment to CSR excellence is why Mattel has chosen to participate in the A Billion + Change campaign. “A lot of times the corporate sector can become very insular while working on an individualized basis,” says Lind. “Working together across sectors and industries is what we believe in and it’s what A Billion + Change is all about.” Lind cited the need to learn from other companies through interaction as the primary reason for involvement. In addition to the benefits gained from collective action, Mattel sees an opportunity to get a fresh perspective on its own efforts by seeing what other companies are doing and how they’re doing it.
The corporate giving program at Mattel is about pro bono work more than anything. In the final process of participation with A Billion + Change, employees are armed with the knowledge brought back through collective participation. The communication is not one-directional, however. Mattel seeks to impart its own knowledge to the broader A Billion + Change community as well. Thus, a feedback loop of sorts forms: as a participant in A Billion + Change, Mattel is able to find ways to make its own efforts more effective. It is then able to act as a more effective participant in A Billion + Change based on what it learns from working within it. The effects of such a rigorous attitude toward corporate citizenship cannot be overvalued.
A Billion + Change has already secured nearly $1.8 billion in corporate pledges and 12 million hours of time and talent to pro bono programs. If your company would like to take the A Billion Plus Change pledge, go to www.abillionpluschange.org for more information.
How Corporate Volunteering Yields "Good" Reality Shows
How Corporate Social Responsibility Alleviates Public Distrust
How To Get Your Employees To Stop Job Hunting