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Cisco aims for impact

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By Todd Cohen

Wanting its workers to drive its philanthropy, Cisco Systems aims to back causes its employees care about and help them help nonprofits be more productive through the use of technology and business processes the San Jose-based tech firm develops.

Now, guided by a newly rehired employee who spent a year on charity’s front lines after losing his corporate-giving job at Cisco, the company is working to make it easier for nonprofits to tap into its philanthropy, which totaled nearly $109 million in cash, donated products and volunteers in the fiscal year ended July 31.

“Historically, the character of our philanthropy has been to follow our employees into work they’re already doing,” says Peter Tavernise, executive director of the Cisco Systems Foundation. “It’s part of our mission to provide them with the tools and resources to help them give back to their communities.”

Based on his own nonprofit work, Tavernise hopes to help Cisco itself become more productive in matching nonprofits with its know-how, technology and money.

A former corporate and foundation fundraiser at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a former program officer for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C., Tavernise was laid off in April 2001 as Cisco’s head of philanthropy in the Southeast.

Under a Cisco program that pays laid-off employees one-third their former salary plus full benefits, Tavernise became a Cisco Fellow, spending a year as a full-time fundraiser and strategic planner for Durham-based North Carolina Public Allies.

That experience is helping to shape his work now to try to simplify and make more accessible Cisco’s corporate-giving program.

“I found certain corporate-giving programs to be opaque, not very-user friendly, with some stellar exceptions,” he says.

Cisco aims to help nonprofits pierce the veil of corporate philanthropy by sharpening the focus of its grantmaking and automating the process for submitting and reviewing grant applications and evaluating their impact, Tavernise says.

“We would like anybody who comes to our Web site or hears about our programs to understand instantaneously what we do,” he says. “We are about dollars, people and products.”

Cisco will continue to concentrate its giving on addressing basic needs and education, and providing tech help for nonprofits – but has recast its programs to emphasize that it supports a continuous “cycle for self-sufficiency and giving back,” Tavernise says.

The company’s goal, he says, is to help people move from crisis to self-sufficiency, and acquire skills and knowledge to sustain themselves economically and contribute to their communities.

Helping to drive those efforts will be Cisco’s work to help nonprofits become more productive, Tavernise says.

Cisco thus will make grants in four areas in which it aims to have an impact – living, learning, civic life and productivity.

In addition to sharpening the focus of its grantmaking, Cisco wants to improve the way it makes grants – and is launching a Web-based system to handle and track grants.

The system, being piloted early this year, lets nonprofits apply for grants by filling out an online form. Nonprofits will have continuing access to any applications they make through the system, which will “remember” nonprofits’ organizational data when they submit new applications.

Grant applicants will receive automated email messages at each stage at which Cisco reviews the applications.

And once grants are made, Cisco and grant recipients can fill out online forms that will be used throughout the period of the grant to assess its impact.

“As a networking company, Cisco is focused on improving business processes to improve productivity,” says Abby Smith, a Cisco public-relations manager. “This is a way in which we’re using Internet technology to help nonprofits be more efficient.”

Despite the economic downturn, grants by Cisco’s foundation have grown steadily to roughly $12 million in fiscal 2002, up from $9.9 million in 2001, $8 million in 2000 and $7.5 million in 1999.

Annual grants also represent a steadily growing share of the foundation’s endowment, increasing to roughly 11 percent in fiscal 2002 from 8 percent in 2001, 6 percent in 2000 and nearly 6 percent in 1999.

“While many philanthropies, especially corporate philanthropies, have reduced their giving, we’ve increased it year over year,” Tavernise says. “That’s one reason the foundation was endowed – to insulate it from business cycles so we could respond to community needs.”

Cisco offers gifts that match employee volunteerism, which totaled 38,170 hours in fiscal 2002, when the company also donated $66 million in products.

Tech support from Cisco volunteers ranges from helping nonprofits assess their tech needs to installing equipment that the company donates – and includes discounts on its networking products offered through the techsoup.org Web site.

“The core competency of our employees will be the greatest value we can add to the nonprofit sector,” Tavernise says. “And it’s more than simply networking expertise. It’s everything we’ve learned – from human resources and finance to marketing or operations – about the benefits of appropriate technology for increasing productivity.”

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