Benevity CEO Bryan de Lottinville on running a B corporation and the use of technology in corporate “Goodness”

Bryan de Lottinville is the founder and CEO of Benevity, the certified B corporation that combines technology with corporate “Goodness” to help drive business and social impact.  After almost 12 years in business, de Lottinville has learned a lot about driving engagement in the corporate world. Ladders spoke with de Lottinville to hear his thoughts on how his own organization handles employee engagement and corporate social responsibility, running a B corporation, and how Millennials are changing expectations for the giving process.

What inspired you to found Benevity?

“Like many people, I’ve always wanted to leave the world better than I found it. I’ve been fortunate in my professional career, first as a corporate finance lawyer and then as a senior leader in several high-growth companies. After the sale of iStockphoto to Getty Images, I vowed to spend the latter part of my career aligning my actions with my intentions around social impact.

In 2007, I made an angel investment that exposed me to a couple of key metrics related to the charitable sector: of the then $300 billion (now $450 billion) in donations in North America, less than 5% were being made online, less than 5% of donation volume was coming from companies, and 67% of employees were not engaged in their jobs. Benevity—one of the earliest ‘B Corporations’—was founded to constructively disrupt this status-quo.

To better integrate business impacts and social outcomes (which will drive more corporate investment in this area), we’ve created a multi-sided tech platform that democratizes and empowers passionate, proactive, experiential participation in giving back. This is in contrast to the traditional, often dutiful, obligatory, transactional interactions that flow from the typical once-a-year fundraising program for company-chosen charities. Benevity’s mission is to build more purpose-driven corporate cultures by engaging employees, customers and communities around causes that resonate personally to them. We also aim to drive automation, scale and technology efficiencies on the charitable side of the landscape. So far, our clients and their people have generated close to $4 billion in donations and more than 20 million volunteer hours to around 200,000 global causes—and 88% of those funds have been paid electronically! At the same time, our Engagement Study showed that robust employee users of our software had 57% lower turnover rates in their companies than non-users, making the pursuit of a higher sense of purpose a win for companies, their people and society.”

Benevity’s website states that the company’s “moonshot is global Goodness.” What does “global Goodness” mean to you?

“We intentionally use the word ‘Goodness’ rather than philanthropy because the latter term is often associated with high net worth donors or corporate top-down initiatives, rather than grassroots participation. Ultimately, we want people and companies to be able to do good on their terms, in a holistic and experiential way, and with cultural impact—within their companies, in their local communities and throughout society and the world at large.

We have built our platform and company to enable this holistic, integrated approach to global Goodness. Benevity’s convenient, democratized user experience empowers companies and their people to easily give time, money, skills, product and corporate grants to almost 2 million vetted global non-profits, and, through our Missions module, they can also participate in actions to reduce waste, improve belonging at work, rally around civic issues and more. It’s all about engaging people in multiple ways to do good. They need to be able to do that across the globe in a way that unifies their employees in different cities or countries, but with a hyper-local flavour, around Goodness as part of their employer’s identity and culture.”

Why do you think it’s important that companies use technology in order to inspire engagement in the office and in the community?

“I think the different demographics that are now in the workforce trend toward a changing definition of corporate purpose and are driving a different ‘why’ around the types of programs that we power, which necessarily changes the how, what and when.

By the end of next year, Millennials will comprise 50% of the workforce, and that goes up to 75% in the ensuing five years. At the same time, there are four other cohorts in the workforce, so if you are trying to engage the diversity that is the modern employee demographic, the idea of a one-size-fits-all is a non-starter. For instance, I’m a Boomer and historically at least was what I describe as a ‘box-ticker’ when it came to doing Good. I would go to the occasional event, write the odd check and at work might participate in my employer’s annual United Way or similar giving campaign. I might be nicely bullied to participate to move the thermometer and I wouldn’t necessarily know where or when or frankly even how much of the money was going, but I was pretty sure some good was happening so my box was ticked. By contrast, Millennials and others who have grown up in an entirely online environment have different expectations and orientations. They can customize their Nikes; they can build a car online; they can harness the power of the crowd in a widening variety of ways with a user experience that is increasingly individualized.

So the idea of doing good in whatever form that takes needs to be consistent with both their expectations and experience. It needs to be super-convenient, user-centric and choice-driven. And for employees of every age group, time and attention are key constraints. Finally, companies need a support model to orchestrate their programs that includes sophisticated reporting and administrative ease that addresses the needs of the C-Suite. It also needs to be social, mobile, accessible, inclusive, transparent and empowering—and it needs to be done on a global scale so that employees in one country don’t have their face pushed against the glass wondering why they don’t have the same program as their U.S. or Canadian brethren.

There is simply no way for any company to sensibly execute on the expectations and opportunities presented by the current appetite for giving back without global, scalable, cloud-based, constantly evolving technology that is built for that purpose.”

How does a company focused on employee engagement and corporate social responsibility handle each of those aspects within its own organization?

“I’m glad you asked that one! One of the things that I believe is crucial for any company that wants to build a compelling culture that attracts, retains and excites their people is to be authentic and invested in ‘walking the talk.’ We are a relatively small company compared to the size of many of our clients, so it is arguably a bit easier for us, but we definitely drink our own Kool-Aid around these issues. We use our own tech, have enabled all the modules of our platform and have a 90% participation rate without a hint of top-down arm twisting. Our people are really engaged in using everything, including the friend-raising, charitable gift cards and user-generated content elements of the platform, and we apply all the program best practices recommended to our clients to our own use of the software. The results we’ve seen internally speak for themselves. I’m tremendously proud of the impact that our people make in our local communities, and our employee engagement levels are off the charts compared to other companies.”

How do you describe the Benevity company culture?

“That is a surprisingly difficult question, to be honest. In fact, I was just talking to our CFO about this the other day. She has been with us only about six months and was complaining (in a reverse-flattery sort of way) that she wasn’t able to adequately convey how special the place is when she talks to people about our culture. She thought she had been in a great culture where she was before, and said that she’s never been part of anything like Benevity.

A hallmark of our culture is our creative insurgency around challenging the status quo, our sense of urgency and bias to action, our recognition that we are not perfect but can always be better, and perhaps most notably—in what I have seen from Benevity’s people since its inception through to today—our willingness to go the extra mile for each other and our clients. On balance, I think it is the kind of culture one gets when you’re able to connect people’s work with a genuine sense of purpose, meaning and impact.

But I’m not sure I can do it justice by way of description, other than to say I’m constantly blown away by our people.”

What do you think makes a good CEO? Does being a founder change your position as CEO at all?

“The reality is that there are ‘ages and stages’ and ‘horses for courses’… by that I mean: what might make a good CEO for one company at a certain stage of growth in a certain vertical with a certain culture, may not necessarily be a good CEO in a different context.

It is difficult to answer the question without conveying some measure of bias, since most people will describe at least some elements of themselves. I think that humility, authenticity, compassion, integrity and adaptability are key to any successful leader, whether CEO or otherwise. I believe that you cannot overcommunicate with your people, that waiting to talk is different than invested listening, and that a corporation should pursue both profit and purpose as part of the fabric of the business. A good leader needs to be comfortable with discomfort; engage for impact, rather than affinity; help their people learn and grow and feel a sense of efficacy as part of their contribution to a company; and invest in corporate culture thoughtfully, intentionally and through modelled behaviors. A good CEO does all of this and delivers on the expectations that are set for them by the company’s board and investors.

The role of founder and CEO is tricky. On the one hand, no one will ever care about Benevity the way that I do. I’m fiercely protective of the mission, the people, our clients and our reputation. On the other, one needs to have the humility to appreciate that the Peter Principle is actually a thing, and not let the emotion that comes with being a founder get in the way of the long term best interests of the company. It’s a delicate balancing act sometimes, but I can honestly say that I aspire to Benevity outgrowing my capabilities because I would never want to limit its potential.”

How would you describe your management style at Benevity? Does that style change with employees from different generations?

“I think the more important question would be how others would describe my management style, but I get where you’re going. My management style has evolved over time, as the company has grown from 5 people to 600. Over that time, I’ve learned to delegate more and empower others. I think that people would describe my style as authentic and transparent, and that I seek to create a ‘benevolent meritocracy’. We have an internal mantra of ‘there’s always better’ (stolen from our client Nike) and I would say that likely captures my style and approach. My chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo has propelled both me and the company to continue to grow and improve. I spend a lot of time ensuring that people know the ‘why’ behind decisions, and I work hard at celebrating our progress and milestones.

The generational piece is interesting. We have a lot of young people at our company, and I love it. They are open and honest and put themselves out there, and they care about people and the planet in ways that give me hope for the future. They do not necessarily have broad experience or business acumen, so, where that is the case, I do try to take more time to provide feedback and guidance. I also try to listen and learn from them, as they don’t always come at issues the way that I would do. I raise the average age in any room in the office I walk into by at least 30 years, so I try to take my role as inspirational leader seriously!”

What piece of career advice would you give to a young professional?

“There are so many others more qualified to give this advice but here are a few trite but true suggestions: (1) Working for money is necessary, but it will never be sufficient. We spend most of our lives working, and you cannot successfully disconnect your work and your values and still be fulfilled. Find a job that contributes to you having a visceral sense of purpose, meaning and impact; (2) No matter how smart you are, there is much to learn. Make sure you have the humility to maintain a growth mindset in all aspects of what you do; (3) Get comfortable being uncomfortable, and try to start with the ‘why’ in all that you undertake.

And finally, at the risk of my Boomer age showing, don’t be afraid to work your ass off!”

What advice would you give to someone interviewing at Benevity?

“Finally, an easy question! Do your homework on the company and be your authentic self.”