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Western Union transmits economic opportunity

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Ret Boney

Just a few years ago, Western Union’s philanthropic efforts were somewhat unfocused, with the company responding to requests from nonprofits and providing funding in a host of different areas, including health care.

Its approach was directed by the needs of the time, and provided critical support for important problems, but there wasn’t a coherent, overarching theme aligned with the corporation’s business goals, says Talya Bosch, the company’s director of corporate social responsibility.

But the company, best known for its payment-processing and money-order services, took the opportunity to rethink its approach in 2006, when it spun off from parent company, First Data.

Now Western Union is halfway through a five-year, $50 million commitment to spur economic opportunity throughout the thousands of communities worldwide where it has a presence.

To come to the new strategy, Western Union spent about a year conducting intense internal and external research to evaluate its unique strengths and the needs in the communities it serves, says Bosch.

“The notion is that every company has other things beyond a checkbook that can benefit communities,” she says. “We were looking for that sweet spot between our capabilities and what the communities’ needs are.”

Among the capabilities it noted during this self-analysis is a presence in about 200 countries and territories across the globe, and a network of about 430,000 agent locations whose operators are members of the communities they serve.

“We wanted to put all our muscle behind one cause, and we have an enormous reach,” says Bosch. “Quite literally, the United Nations said ‘you’re in places we’re not.'”

And, of course, there’s the company’s operational expertise of helping people and businesses across the globe send and receive money.

In 2009 alone, the company transferred $71 billion through almost 200 million person-to-person transactions, and facilitated an additional 415 million business payments.

“We’re global in our focus, yet we’re able to tap the expertise of our agents, who are on street corners around the globe,” says Bosch. “That’s a resource we realized we could tap.”

In 2007, the company launched the Our World, Our Family program, which plans to invest $50 million by the end of 2012 to create economic opportunity around the world.

Western Union’s role as part of the connective tissue that binds families and communities together across borders and oceans gives the company a special point of leverage for this new initiative.

“There is an economic ladder and we have an opportunity to reach people at every rung,” says Bosch.

The bottom rung includes some recent migrants who venture forth to find jobs, along with the families they leave behind  that rely on the remittances their working relatives provide.

The Our World, Our Family program provides tools and resources to help migrants assimilate in their new countries, and provides microloans to help the recipient families improve their own lives back home.

“We want migration to become an option, not a necessity,” says Bosch. “Until then, we can help people learn the customs of their new communities, get jobs and get connected to community resources.”

As migrants become more established, a new set of opportunities arise to help them ascend the economic ladder.

To assist at these stages, the company funds programs that help migrants, as well as U.S. citizens, get a degree, gain personal-finance skills or start or expand a small business.

And finally, Western Union uses its corporate voice to engage in the global dialogue around immigration, encouraging all parties to address the hot-potato topic in a way that is “effective and fair,” says Bosch.

“Just being able to talk about the needs of migrants, politics aside, helps raise the awareness and importance of these issues,” she says. “We try to get beyond the emotionality of issues surrounding immigration to have a fact-based dialogue.”

So far, the Our World effort has invested about $25 million and directly impacted more than 1 million people, with ripple effects that extend beyond those directly served.

And the company hasn’t abandoned its “pure philanthropy,” as Bosch calls it.

In 2009, the company’s foundation awarded a total of $9.1 million in grants to 141 organizations across the world, and has awarded 120 scholarships through its Family Scholarships program since 2008.

Its employee-giving program, which includes a two-to-one match for U.S. employees and a three-to-one match for employees abroad, amassed $1.3 million during 2009.

And 447 of its agents participate in a giving program, matched dollar-for-dollar by the foundation, that has raised $27 million since it began in 2003.

The combination of global perspective and local presence and insight gives Western Union a chance not only to help people in need, but to bolster its own reputation, and even its bottom line.

The Our World program helps the company stay connected to the communities it serves, and the goodwill that creates means locals stand up for Western Union when inevitable criticisms arise, says Bosch.

And moving people up the ladder of economic opportunity can also mean moving them up the ladder of Western Union’s products and services.

After people’s initial basic needs are met, they can begin investing in other things, like starting a business, for example.

“We encourage them to invest in small business creation because that’s a way out of poverty, but we also provide small-business products and services,” says Bosch.

While that symbiotic approach may not be “pure philanthropy,” tying community involvement to the company’s success makes for a more sustainable community-involvement effort, she says.

“It’s a good thing if I can demonstrate that there’s a benefit to the programs we deliver,” she says. “If it’s the right thing to do and there’s a benefit to the company, then it’s easier to convince the higher-ups to make the investment in difficult economic times like these.”

Moving people up the ladder of economic opportunity isn’t an overnight project, and seeing the payoff of the Our World program to migrants and the families they leave behind likely will take years.

But with 159 years of operations in its rear-view mirror, the company believes its investment in the future of communities will pay off, both for the people it serves and its own bottom line.

“We are able to take a very long-term view,” says Bosch. “Some days, that’s more difficult than others, but being a responsible corporate citizen has to be part of the mix if you’re planning to stick around for the long-term.”

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