10 Years into Azavea’s Charitable Contributions Program

10 Years into Azavea’s Charitable Contributions Program

Giving back has always been central to Azavea’s mission. “Create more value than you capture” is also one of our core values. Since our founding, we have been a triple bottom line company; a commitment to people, planet, and profits is part of our DNA. Inspired by companies like Patagonia and efforts like 1% for the Planet, we have always given a portion of our profits away. 

10 years ago we started going through the process to become certified as a B Corporation. As part of the certification process, I had to answer a list of hundreds of questions about the company and our practices. While it took some time, the process proved enlightening and provided a chance for us to evaluate how we did things. While our company policies and practices at the time were enough to make us eligible for B Corp status without making any changes, the evaluation process introduced me to some potential ideas for the future. The B Corp evaluation asked if we had a formal process whereby we contributed a portion of our profits to a charitable cause. We did not, but we could, and it was certainly in line with our mission and values. This led me to formalize a charitable contribution program at Azavea. 

Rachel and I had discussed something like this for several years. One approach we considered was a corporate match program, whereby an employee’s donation to a 501(c)3 would be matched with company funds. While we believed this would be personal and meaningful to individual employees, this had three limitations:

  • This model wouldn’t allow us to evaluate the nonprofits to which we would be making a donation and just because a colleague supported an organization, it didn’t mean that we would feel the same way; rather, we would run the risk of donating to an organization whose mission did not align with ours.
  • This approach would limit employee input to those individuals who took advantage of this program and were able to give their own funds.
  • By requiring that employees identify the recipient, it requires that employees give up some of their privacy. People make donations to causes about which they care deeply, and it’s a personal decision; it didn’t seem like it should be the company’s business. 

We wanted an approach that would simultaneously enable us to increase our impact, be simple to administer, allow everyone in the company to participate, and align with our mission.

How it works

We determined that we would give 2-3% of our profits to charitable organizations at the end of each year. Rachel and I came up with the initial list of organizations, broken out into categories that matched our company’s interests (such as open source, conservation, transportation, etc.). All employees (part-time and full-time) were allotted 10 points to “spend” on one or more of the organizations. We then compiled the points, averaged them, and allocated our annual contributions based on that amount.

Over the next few years, we changed a few things, like increasing the point number to 100 (to make it easier to allocate points), adding an organization nomination process (for adding or removing organizations), and adding a one-time donation category (to account for current events), but the process has remained largely the same and has proven to be highly effective for the past decade. At the end of the voting process, we send a check to each of the organizations along with a letter that describes the program. The letter emphasizes that our employees chose this organization to give to specifically because they believe in its mission and work. 

The voting process

Today we go through about three rounds of voting at the end of each year:

Round 1: I send out an email at the beginning of November to solicit nominations for new organizations to add to our permanent list, and organizations that folks are interested in adding as a one-time recipient. Some guidelines we have around organizations include:

  • No religious organizations, unions, universities, political parties or private foundations – in other words, it should be a 501(c)3.
  • No member-based professional organizations
  • Rachel and I retain the right to veto an organization that we think would be inappropriate or that doesn’t match our values.

Round 2: After receiving nominations we send out a second survey aimed at making three decisions: (1) What (if any) organization from the nomination list will we add to our semi-permanent list? (2) What (if any) organization from our permanent list will we remove? (3) Which organization should we designate as our one-time recipient organization for this year? In recent years, we have always had a one-time recipient and have added or removed one or two to the regular list. 

Round 3: This is the fun part. The final list of eligible organizations is assembled and folks start voting! Each employee gets 100 points to “spend” or allocate and can distribute them among the organizations they want to support. They can choose to put them all on a single organization or distribute them among multiple organizations. Some folks will lobby their colleagues to support their favorite organization(s) with their points, which can be a lot of fun to watch.

The voting process is totally private — I can tell who responded, but I only publish the aggregate information. This enables employees to vote how they wish. It’s also optional — we don’t require that folks vote on where the money goes, though most do. 

The organizations

The list of recipient organizations has slowly shifted over time, as both our employees change and their interests change. This allows us to be responsive to the interests and passions of our colleagues. We are also able to be responsive to world events and the political landscape through our one-time giving program. A certain percentage of our donations goes to an organization that is voted on by employees as relevant to that year. In 2017, it was a disaster relief fund following the devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico. In 2018, it was an asylum seeker advocacy project in response to the Trump Administration’s family separation policy enacted that summer.

Current categories for giving include:

  • Conservation and Ecosystems
  • Local Arts and Culture
  • Open Gov, Open Data, Open Source, Open Science
  • Energy and Sustainable Transportation
  • Local Technology and Education
  • One-Time Giving

Recent recipient organizations have included:

What we’ve learned

The system isn’t perfect, and we are still refining it. For example, we didn’t realize we would need a process for determining an organization’s ongoing eligibility until we encountered one that was reported to have used funds inappropriately. I did my best to investigate the situation and decided to remove the organization from our list of eligible organizations.

We realized how important and meaningful this program had become during the two years of the past eighteen that we were not profitable. Those were painful years, but it was exacerbated because we wrote much smaller checks to organizations in those years. We were still able to give something, but not as much as we hoped.

This system also turned out to be an incredibly useful way to funnel ad hoc donation requests. Before, when I was solicited for donation requests, which happens fairly frequently, I would have to make a decision and craft a unique response to each request. Now I am able to simply say, “We have a program for that!” and send them a response that outlines the program. The charitable contributions program turned out to be similar to Summer of Maps in that respect. In both cases, we’ve converted what previously were ad hoc requests for pro bono services and donations to structured, repeatable programs. Both offer a way to engage meaningfully with the broader nonprofit community while also providing a consistent way to do so.

Importance of employee ownership

It was really important to me that this program incorporate one of our key company values: ownership mentality. If I want to work with colleagues to act like owners, but don’t actually afford them the opportunity to “own” the outcome of decisions, then how am I promoting this value? Giving folks a chance to vote on how we distribute funds is an example of extending power, like our committees. While I have decision-making power over the list of organizations, I have the same number of votes as everyone else. In fact, every colleague has the same voting power, no matter the salary or role, in how we distribute the fruit of our collective labor to charitable causes.

I firmly believe that a workplace is a better place to work if opportunities for democratic decision-making are extended when possible. We are not a cooperative and our overarching structure is not democratic. We don’t work on projects as a democracy or assign salaries as a democracy. But this is an area where my giving up power doesn’t hurt me, and it gives everyone else a chance to make their work more interesting and meaningful. Giving equal control over how funds are distributed, colleagues are able to say, “Some of my labor will go to this organization I care about.”

What it might look like in the future

Similar to our Start-Stop-Continue program and Committees system, our charitable contributions program is a way for employees at Azavea to exercise leadership and ownership. We have been able to support organizations doing really good work, all driven by employee interest. The charitable contributions program has shifted some in its first decade, and I’m sure it will continue to evolve in the next decade. 

A recent suggestion from a colleague would extend this program to support open source work: “1% for Open Source” we might call it. We already give a significant amount of money (and time) to open source projects through sponsorships of programs like OS Geo, code sprints, and various open source software conferences. These efforts are significant, but I think we can do more. In the open source world, small projects often suffer from a relative dearth of resources. In an extension of our charitable contributions program, I would love to enable colleagues to nominate critical but resource-poor open source projects that they value and be able to provide funding to keep them vibrant.

Whatever this program looks like in ten years, I hope we are still putting people first and finding ways to have a meaningful impact in our small corner of the universe. Is your company looking for more information on starting a charitable contributions program, or do you have ideas you’d like to share with us? Shoot us a line.