How Cisco Outperforms Everyone on Social Responsibility and Philanthropy with Less Money

I had an interesting chat with Peter Tavernise, Cisco’s Director of Corporate Affairs on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  I left with the impression that most everyone else is doing this all wrong.  With a relatively small budget, Cisco appears to be having a much bigger positive impact on the world’s problems because they focus on fixing the problem not just on giving money or having that one big media moment and then going on with their lives.  When they go into a project, it is with a desire to actually make an impact.  

Only a small part of their overall effort is to give cash, the majority of the work is to create lasting systems that don’t just gloss over the problems but actually fix them.  The end result isn’t just a better world but better products and, I think, better employees.  

Let me use a couple of examples.

Africa Bore Wells

There has been a big effort to get clean water to Africans in near destitute countries.  One of the big debates on this subject I saw early on had Bill Gates arguing against the idea of moving tech into Africa because people who don’t have water, food, or medicine are sure not going to be buying iPhones.   His view was you had to fix the water, food, and medical problem first. 

Well, a lot of institutional donors contributed millions to bore wells over the past several decades, and had great press events showing the African children playing in the fresh water. Then after their media moment, donors left.  The wells were like magic and given they didn’t run on Unicorn Blood or Pixy dust, they broke down or got contaminated shortly after the media went home.  Few donors made an effort to assure wells could be maintained, and villagers didn’t understand how they worked or how to keep contaminants out of the process. The end result was arguably worse because now the village has grown because of the promised water which was no longer flowing.  

Through its support of Water for People, Cisco helped create an Android app that tied the newly instrumented wells into a support network so that timely repairs could be made  and the wells would continue to work.  The app not only reports on operation but things like contamination so the village inhabitants aren’t harmed.  They also assured that the countries the wells resided in and the villages shared ownership and cost so there was a higher interest in keeping things running and getting people trained on how to use and repair them.  The end result is that the wells Water for People has touched largely remain in operation and the overall effort is far less expensive than fixing or redrilling old ones that were not properly maintained. 

Since Cisco’s investment, this Android app has since been scaled via Dutch organization Akvo to serve more than 23M people through more than 200 organizations. The networking experience, app, and enhanced monitoring capability also helped advance the company’s IoT experience and offerings so this not only benefited the African people but Cisco, as well. 


Growing refugee crises concern a great deal of the world now, particularly after the images of children who drowned due to faulty or missing life vests hit the news.  In this instance, Cisco employees demanded something be done and contributed $745K to the effort, while also coming up with an innovative solution themselves (see the Refugee Response Center below).   This effort has had assistance from Cisco nonprofit partner, NetHope

The organization was originally founded in 2001 with assistance by Cisco and Save the Children to help solve one of the biggest problems facing global aid NGO’s: they were being gouged by satellite communications companies because they were dealing with those firms individually   So Cisco stepped in and helped the CTO’s of these organizations create an aggregated need/collective bargaining program that led to far lower group prices.  Nethope went on to address other IT and connectivity needs for crisis response, such as disaster and refugee situations, including network relief kits; basically two Pelican cases filled with custom gear for provisioning field medical and assistance efforts. 

Cisco also funded a hand held app by Mercy Corps and Wi-Fi hotspots in 27 sites across Greece and Slovenia that would help refugees locate and travel safely to needed resources.   NetHope created the Crisis Informatics applications for this effort.   Cisco and partners also helped create a shipping crate Refugee Response medical center (currently in prototype) that could be shipped or trucked in with all of the connected equipment a care provider might need to treat refugees.  And, Cisco’s TacOps team have a unique truck called the NERV (Network Emergency Response Vehicle) and other mobile and portable kits which can be deployed to provide secure IP-based communications services in the aftermath of natural disasters or other crises in which infrastructure is either degraded, destroyed or non-existent.

These efforts, supported with partners like NetHope and Mercy Corps have not only been critical at assuring the safety and health of the refugees but they have advanced Cisco’s own strengths in hardened gear and first responder equipment making its related products more competitive. 

Strategic Venture Investment

One of Cisco’s other unique approaches to Social Responsibility is to invest in early stage startup nonprofit efforts focused on helping people through innovative IT-based solutions.  One such investment was with the Mind Research Institute that targets math proficiency in children in the US (for now).  This unique program that helps young kids start out with a Sneaker Net-like effort where the software was shared with mobile media, like floppy disks, that were taken from class to class and school to school. 

With Cisco’s investment and help they took the program on-line and the end result is that it now touches 1M kids who are showing 2x improvement in math skills in as little as one year.   In terms of a force multiplier, MIND has scaled their offering with Cisco’s help from 12,000 students in 2004, to over 1M students today. They have also helped create a strategic plan, which Cisco also helped fund, to grow the program both domestically and worldwide.  Because the teaching program isn’t language dependent, its ability to potentially move to other countries and languages is unprecedented. 

Cisco aggressively looks for nonprofit partners like the Mind Research Institute as a way to have a larger positive impact on the world and to help develop competitive products for markets, like education. 

Wrapping Up: 

By using partners and looking specifically for problems Cisco is expert at fixing, the firm has created what amounts to a Force Multiplier.  Not only do these investments have a far greater and more lasting impact than just sending money, the end result is that Cisco’s own offerings become stronger. 

Philanthropy should be less about making the giver look and feel good and more about actually doing good.  At the end of the day, measurements should be more about the number of people helped than the amount of money given or the positive press coverage received.  Folks like Peter Tavernise and others on Cisco’s Corporate Affairs team aren’t just excellent employees but excellent examples of caring and effective people. I believe we need far more folks thinking like they do if we want to make the planet a better place to live.