Last Wednesday and Thursday (online and print newspaper), the New York Times, Business Day/Deal B%k published a well written and well researched front page story on the current state of Wall Street Giving. The subtext title was, and I believe accurately so described, "A Philanthropic Recession."
The article sought to highlight what has become a noticeable decrease in overall philanthropic support of credible non-profit organizations (albeit by some companies, not all), at a time when one could argue that support — particularly around issues of financial literacy education and financial empowerment — should be at a record high for the broad-based financial services sector.
The only problem with anyone attempting to tell an important yet very sensitive story such as this, is the reasonable inability of really anyone being able to tell the whole and complete story (generally due to limitations of media placement space), nuances included.
So, no matter how brilliant the writer, the fact is the writer is visiting a home that someone else built, so to speak. They are also dealing with only the facts they can prove, at that moment. All very reasonable from my view, but valuable context sometimes gets left aside.
As a result, simple facts not illustrated or expanded upon, can be taken out of context by serious readers and casual observers alike. Such was the case I believe with our friends at ING, a long-time partner for Operation HOPE.
The good news here is that this has allowed me an opportunity to say what I have wanted to say about the company and its leadership, in a longer and more appropriate format. Here, in my own written voice.
The NY Times article referenced several companies, including one that for reasons not tied to our performance, just stopped giving altogether and with little respectful discussion or conversation. In the same passage, it was noted that "ING delayed a $300,000 grant renewal to Operation HOPE."
While this may technically be true, the larger truths about this partnership and overall relationship are actually more interesting, and even inspiring. The ING spirit, and their historic commitment and consistency with us and other organizations, differentiates them.
Operation HOPE had been partners with ING for a few years when we approached ING senior leadership and the foundation in late 2009, with a request to back our then new initiative called Banking on Our Future, College Edition. Based on our award winning Banking on Our Future financial literacy empowerment program, College Edition would move our empowerment work into all 105 HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) institutions over a 5-year period.
We shared with ING leadership the fact that "the #1 reason that black and brown youth drop out of college was not academics, but money." Another institution oddly enough featured in the same article, Spelman College, was not only the place we launched the first pilot for Banking on Our Future, College Edition, but also illustrates the power of the need for financial literacy education amongst HBCU campuses, students and families.
Just last year Spelman College found themselves in the midst of an incredibly unfair dilemma; a couple hundred brilliant young ladies, having a 3.5 GPA or better, but unable to return to campus for the new school year because they simply could not afford to pay the tuition.
Luckily for them, they had a leader with vision in the name of their president, my friend Dr. Beverly Tatum. The college was able to rally corporate and individual leadership support in Atlanta, and solved the problem. I for one would prefer if Dr. Tatum and leading institutions such as Spelman College were able to focus any extra capital and support they have on new initiatives that keep them competitive, and drive them forward, rather than filling old gaps of the most basic need. But this is the present challenge, and this is but one of the many reasons why philanthropic leadership is so critically important. Supporting Spelman in this regard wasn't charity, it was and remains a core investment in the future human capital of a nation. This nation.
ING understood my argument, and responded positively to my request, with the foundation, under the leadership of its president Rhonda Mims, making a firm commitment to back Banking on Our Future, College Edition in March of 2010. Moving forward from there, HOPE hit the marks, met or exceeded reasonable expectations of the program, and just right about that time Murphy's Law put everything on hold.
Some key ING senior leaders that strongly advocated for and supported our work retired late last year from the company, which was followed by additional management changes at the company in the first quarter of 2011, related to it's parent company in Amsterdam. By the second quarter of 2011, ING was announcing a major transaction with yet another major financial institution — one that would keep the ING organization otherwise focused through the third quarter of 2011. All good for the company, and simple bad timing for us.
But herein lies all the good news – in the midst of all of this corporate "change" within ING, at no time did they move away from us, or their stated commitment to our groundbreaking work of College Edition, nor their overall relationship with HOPE.
At no time did they turn their back on us, or stop responding to phone calls or our outreach. The lines of communication were always open.
At no time did they attempt to move the relationship with Operation HOPE out of the corporate suite and into someplace else, "more convenient" to them.
During this entire process, they just kept on trying to schedule that key meeting between me and the new ING senior leadership. And when that meeting finally happened, including Rob Leary, the chief operating officer for the entire company, to say it was substantive would be an understatement. Other than the CEO himself, it doesn't get more senior that Rob Leary, and he could not have been more generous with his time, authentic in his interest, and specific about what would come next with the relationship.
At the end of the day, ING did it right.
In the midst of it all, they kept their philanthropic focus, their integrity, and their eye on the bottom line.
I wanted to write this article as almost a personal reflection, because ING is in fact a company to be "encouraged," and admired.
Other companies, and their leadership, can learn a great deal from them about how to both do the challenging thing, and the right thing at the same time. About not winning battles and losing wars.
While other brands come and go, ING is still here and even thriving. This is in part because of the way they treat others, and learning how to lead as not merely a "profitable financial service company", but a leadership organization that builds wealth for all around them too.
So, I will take the delayed funding from ING, as intent or character was not the issue. They were just "a little busy (smile)."
In the end, we received something of even more value; a deep commitment to making a difference, and a relationship commitment at the very top, for the future.
Okay, let's go.
John Hope Bryant is a thought leader, founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and Bryant Group Companies, Inc. Magazine/CEO READ bestselling business author of LOVE LEADERSHIP: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Jossey-Bass), and a Member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for President Barack Obama. Mr. Bryant is a co-founder of Global Dignity with HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland. Global Dignity is affiliated with the Forum of Young Global Leaders and the World Economic Forum.