One of Cisco’s longest-running traditions is a special program for Silicon Valley nonprofits, which has offered Community Impact Cash Grants to carefully selected community organizations for more than a decade. In recent years, the grant amount has been set at $15,000 each for programs focused on K-8 education and health, a subset of Cisco’s overall social investment areas.
A unique aspect of the program is its reliance on Cisco employee volunteers. While holding down their day jobs, these hardworking team members help drive every aspect of the grantmaking process – from evaluating the applications to performing site visits to identifying the 40 strongest applicants from a large and worthy pool. (See this year’s awardees.) On Wednesday, this year’s recipients gathered at Cisco’s headquarters in San Jose, California, to pick up their checks, brainstorm with peers about common challenges they face, and reunite with the Cisco employees who helped evaluate and recommend their grant proposals as the most competitive.
After the grant applications are received, Cisco employees contact the nonprofits by phone, then do their best to arrange an in-person site visit. On these visits, each employee volunteer gets to know the nonprofit’s staff, hears experiences and feedback directly from program recipients, and evaluates the program’s fitness and alignment with Cisco’s investment areas and values. Once the site visits are complete, the employees gather to advocate for the strongest programs that they observed individually, then decide as a group which of these standout applications have the greatest potential for positive impact.
Through the site visits, nonprofit staff can learn about strengthening their program’s appeal to potential funders. Cisco’s volunteer team looks for operational efficiency, innovative program offerings, and measureable impacts – qualities that are as important in nonprofit organizations as they are in business settings. In addition, the employees often help nonprofits connect to Cisco’s large and enthusiastic pool of volunteers. Some of Cisco’s volunteers even become involved with the organizations in a deeper way, staying connected to offer ongoing mentorship and support. Even for nonprofits whose grant applications are not ultimately selected for funding, the interactions can prove invaluable as sources of consultation and inspiration.
“I love to learn about the work of local nonprofits through my grant review visits to them,” says Meg North Taylor, a corporate communications manager who has served on the grant review committee for four years. “I’ve learned about wonderful, innovative programs in education and healthcare that are making a difference in people’s lives and strengthening the community. And reviewing the grants has also given me a chance to get to know fellow Cisco employees with whom I would otherwise not have a chance to collaborate.”
Cisco’s Community Relations team helped extend this collegial spirit at the June 5 awards event itself, bringing in Molly Polidoroff from the Center for Excellence in Nonprofits (CEN). Molly spoke about the challenges of sustaining a nonprofit operation in a time when funding is growing more scarce, but the need among underserved populations is escalating. After her introduction, Molly broke the nonprofits into several discussion groups. Each was facilitated by a Cisco volunteer who helped the organizations share ideas about the common challenges they face. Each organization in attendance received a free year’s membership to the CEN, underwritten by Cisco. Both the grantmaking process and the awards event showcased Cisco’s belief in the power of the human network to connect, inform, and inspire.
Cisco employees can take advantage of numerous Cisco-supported opportunities to volunteer, from matching gifts to team-building events to local program development efforts similar to this Silicon Valley grant program. Since Cisco began, our people have always considered community involvement to be a vital component of a positive work/life balance.
This year’s group of Cisco employees who volunteered included: Jenna Abeyta, Julene Allen, Balogun Ayo, Kindle Barkus, Lori Biesen, TJ Bonner, Rodney Brooks, Cindy Cooley, Eddie Correa, Connie Dudum, Mathilda Espiritu, Yvonne French, Jessica Graham, Mike Jimenez-Cruz, Darryl Kojima, Chris Leano, Brandon Middleton, Bernarda Miller, Lucy Munoz, Dan O’Malley, Melody Onwiler, Robert Roffey, Matthew Stein, Marika Sykora, Thomas Tanner, Meg North Taylor, Teri Treille, Monica Winders, and Donna Wright.
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