Alter Everything

A podcast about data science and analytics culture.
Alteryx Alumni (Retired)

Benevity has helped support 303,000 non-profits, helped organize 38 million volunteer hours, and has seen $7 billion dollars in total donations pass through their workplace giving platform. We're joined by Benevity Chief Impact Officer, Sona Khosla, for a deep dive into why corporate social responsibility is more important than ever to help drive positive cultural change.


*This conversation was originally a fireside chat for Alteryx associates. The conversation has been edited for clarity.








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Episode Transcription

MADDIE 00:00

[music] Welcome to Alter Everything, a podcast about data science and analytics culture. Today we're joined by Sona Khosla, Chief Impact Officer at Benevity. Sona heads up the Benevity Impact Labs, an incubator and resource hub that brings cutting-edge data, research insights, and best practices to help organizations and individuals maximize their impact and authentically live their purpose. Sona has helped companies adopt groundbreaking strategies to maximize their social and business impact. She's at the helm of the Benevity Top Data Reports and Benevity's Premier annual industry conference, Goodness Matters, as well as client engagements including the Benevity Leadership Summit, which brings together top executives from iconic brands to ideate on opportunities in the social impact space. Our host for this conversation is Lori Harder. She's our senior Corporate Social Responsibility Operations Manager at Alteryx, and is likewise passionate about having a positive change in the community. This conversation was originally a fireside chat that took place right around Giving Tuesday, and it was only for our internal Alteryx associates, but we love Sona's message and wanted to share with our Alter Everything audience. So let's get started. Here's Lori.

LORI 01:17

Once again, Sona, welcome! We are so thrilled to have you here. Can you share what Giving Tuesday means to Benevity and what opportunity we have to reframe the day so it's not just a one-off?

SONA 01:30

Absolutely. Thank you for having me, Lori, and the Alteryx team. I'm really excited to be here, especially on the day after Giving Tuesday, which was super momentous for Benevity. We'll be sharing our data at the end of tomorrow. I think you'll be excited to see the collective impact that all of the companies in our community made. But for us, Giving Tuesday is an interesting holiday because when you look at media data, only 2.25% of the media conversation during the holiday season is actually focused on Giving Tuesday. And that is tiny compared to Black Friday or Cyber Monday. And so we really think that there's an opportunity to elevate its presence. It's in its 10th year, and still, only 37% of Americans actually know about it. So kudos for being a company that is getting on board with promoting it to your people. I think you said it really well in your intro, in a world and in a time where we need much more positive action from individuals, we need to be elevating this conversation, and especially, I think, as we face these existential threats that are coming up. And I really don't mean to be hyperbolizing, but I think the pandemic showed us that those aren't things that are happening in the future, they're things that can happen anytime. So this is really a time to make goodness, however that looks, top of mind for people, and to take it beyond just giving. It's called Giving Tuesday, I joke about rebranding it Goodness Tuesday because there are so many ways to give back, like you said, using your voice or just one behavioral change. And I think that when you start to elevate the awareness, even within yourself, where you start to think about, "What is that one good thing that I can do?" you're shifting people's mindsets. And then, hopefully, you do something for Giving Tuesday or during this week, and you feel the impact of that, and you think, "Actually, I think I'm going to do more of that." And that's how it carries on to become kind of a year-round movement or a shift in your behavior that you start to carry on and carry into the future. So Giving Tuesday is important. It's a moment that hopefully creates a bit of a movement, both at the individual level and the collective level.

LORI 03:50

I love that. It's a movement that hopefully will create a movement. That's great. Can you talk about how that, sometimes, it's just seen as one day? So how can companies really embed giving and philanthropy into their company values?

SONA 04:06

Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of ways, but I think the most powerful way is, first of all, by empowering it within your culture, so making sure that you've got ways that people can support the causes that matter the most to them. And the reason I say that is because oftentimes, people think culture is this thing that happens up here, and it's dictated by leadership and executives. And while it's true, leadership and executives absolutely influence the culture; what I've learned is, actually, people at every level influence the culture. That is kind of the whole point of culture. So I think that, really, it's about empowering every single person to be able to act on their passion, the thing that's personal to them. And we've seen this at Benevity. It's incredible just to watch people who will act really courageously. And we had someone just recently who posted that they had been a survivor of sexual violence, and started fundraising or a giving opportunity in support of organizations. And this person had clearly come through a healing process and was ready to turn their trauma into something that could protect and prevent this and help others heal. And that's phenomenal. And that's inspiring. And that gives permission to other people to do the same thing, and gives other people courage. And I think that's how you embed that into your culture and value system. You've got courageous people who will put themselves out there, enroll you in their passions, and then that the support that comes is phenomenal.

LORI 05:38

That's great. And speaking of courage, in a previous conversation that you and I had, you shared with me that you didn't ever think that you felt more uncomfortable in your role than you did last year. So I'm really curious how you saw 2020 change the world and more specifically, the corporate world?

SONA 05:58

Yeah. Last year I said that to you, Lori, because I think we were hit with so much and it was so profound. It rocked people to the core. It rocked me to the core, that's for sure. And so I felt uncomfortable because I'm a chief impact officer. It's my job to kind of know what to do in these things. I kind of don't love using the word unprecedented, but it was unprecedented. And what we saw in the corporate space, at least, was many companies coming to us saying, "We need to do something and we need to do it now." And what was really interesting was the companies who had been with Benevity for years, had been using our technology, were ready to activate like that. However, there were a lot of companies who didn't have the technology in place and couldn't scale those efforts as much. And I think that's important because you'll then have companies who maybe say something, use their voice out in public, but don't have that actionable thing that their people can really feel like they're making a difference. It's something that the company stands for but not something that they can engage in. So we saw massive growth in the number of companies getting on board. And we saw workplace giving shattering all records. So $2.3 billion was donated just through our platform alone. And that's, just to give you context, 62% higher than the previous year. And then I think there was just a lot of corporate activism, right, we saw. And this is where I think you see the power of the people, right. They are basically saying, "We're not okay with this, actually. We're not okay with this anymore. The social and racial injustice, vulnerable people on the front lines not being treated right or being recognized for their contributions." So holding businesses accountable to a higher standard. And that's when we always talk about people who have the highest amount of trust in business. That's the flip side of it. You're accountable then because people are counting on you. So that's what I think is really exciting. But it's also uncomfortable because you're being held to a pretty high standard, and it's a standard that you're not really familiar with. Last year, anyways, I didn't really know what to expect. So that was kind of what happened last year, and it was uncomfortable. But I think, seeing the amounts of companies come together-- same with Benevity. We ran a matching campaign, and I think within three hours we had maxed out a 300 thousand dollar budget. It was just the pent-up desire to help in that moment was incredible. So I think it was a powerful moment. And it teaches you that when you're uncomfortable, you're growing. And so it's hard to be in it, but you come through it.

LORI 08:41

Yeah. And I think, in the last year, those expectations for social impact are just going to continue to rise because our generation, or the generations that are coming into the workforce, are really holding us accountable.

SONA 08:54

Yeah, totally.

LORI 08:55

So you all published through Benevity Labs, your Goodness Engagement Study. And I would love for you to share some of the key findings from that study with everyone.

SONA 09:05

Yeah. The Goodness Engagement Study, we actually published this one a while ago. I think it was back in 2018, but it's still one of our anchor reports. And essentially, what we found through that study was that employees who engage in giving and volunteering are 57% less likely to leave a company if they've done that through their company. So that's pretty incredible. It was, I think, the first time that there had been really that unequivocal data that it actually supports retention. And I think when you think about being in the great resignation right now, or I don't know, you call it the great reshuffle, or we're calling it the great transformation, partly because if you look at the short-term data, yeah, it looks like it were kind of a crisis. But actually, if you look at 2010, voluntary resignations has been on the climb. And we think that's because more people are prioritizing purpose over a paycheck. They are looking for more of that meaning and impact in their lives. And so you can see that the companies who will start to engage their people and meet them where they're at, they will start to acquire that talent, much more easily attract that talent, and then as our study showed us, engage and retain them. But I think that's the data, which I like because it's great to take that to your executives and say, "This is why we need to do it." But I think what is so profound is that it also helps people really connect and feel that bond with their employer. For example, when your employer gives you $10, you feel something when you give. And that halo effect of that bond then gets transferred to your employer. And same when you support a colleague's giving opportunity, "I feel a little more connected to that person," especially in this distributed workforce. I don't know all the people-- there's so many people who joined our company - I'm sure, you too - that you've never met in person. But then you see them share a little bit of themselves and you support their giving option, and you're like, "Now I feel like I have a connection," which is really profound.

SONA 11:10

So I just wanted to share some data that I actually just read this weekend as well. Apparently, there are 15.7 million open jobs in the US right now. And so, basically, what that means is there's roughly 1 in 10 seats that's open. And so hug a recruiter right now, their jobs are tough. But they're expecting that there's going to be 20 million open jobs next year, which is going to bring that open seats to 1 and 8. So, absolutely, in this time of the great resignation and purpose-driven everything, companies need to be hyper-focused on impact. And our data shows that not only retains and engages people, but we also have some data and stories that shows that it also develops the critical skills. I won't call them soft skills, although I think in the past, communications and empathy have been considered soft skills. I would say their core skills for the future of the workforce has shown that it develops those skills. And those people are actually much more likely to get promoted. So people who engage, especially in pro-bono volunteering, tend to get promoted. And what we found when we looked in one of this client's data was that the people who tend to engage in pro-bono volunteering, also tend to be people of color or women. And so you're actually also building a diverse leadership pipeline through some of these programs, which is really an unintended consequence but a really positive one.

LORI 12:31

Love that. And on that same note of data and reporting, there continues to be a really high focus on how we report social impact. And I know that much of that is still undetermined or cannot be measured. So I'm curious your thoughts on the rise of ESG and how it's gone from being niche to mainstream in the investor community? And what are your thoughts on the new requirements expected from the SEC on the ESG community?

SONA 13:00

Yeah. So I love talking about ESG, and I am not a finance person [laughter]. But when you think about the evolution of ESG-- so I think a lot of us heard about ESG in the last few years, and I'll put myself in that bucket as well. It was new to me. So for those of you who don't know what ESG is, it's Environment Social Governance. It's a measurement framework or a compliance framework, depending on how you look at it. And essentially, what it's doing is holding a certain standard for a company's commitment to those three dimensions of business. And it's been around for a long time, more than a decade, but we haven't really seen the number of assets under management in ESG really grow until the last few years and especially last year, after 2020. But if you look back on some of the data around ESG, you'll find that-- I think it was Bank of America, had published a study that showed that companies that have that score high on ESG, they have lower borrowing rates. They have way lower market volatility. They grow in value more. So I think what that kind of data started to show us was ESG is not just a risk mitigation strategy. Previously, companies had ESG to protect their brand or their market value. So, for example, you would put environmental policies so that you don't have a workplace hazard or so you're not ruining kind of your market value or brand reputation through a disaster of some sort. So it's very much about managing the risks, exploiting child labor, for example, things like that. But as the data that I was talking about starting to come out, I think people started to see, "Wait a minute, ESG is also a framework that drives value in the business." And so many stats now, it's unequivocal, investing in what we would call purpose or ESG, [draws on?] business value.

SONA 14:52

And we're excited about that, but we also think it has the potential to thwart the reasons for investing in ESG, right. If it's just another business lever, then do you have the right intention? Do you get the right outcomes? That's, I think, the one thing we just-- it's a pitfall. But what we see kind of shifting towards-- we're living in a world of stakeholder capitalism, and I keep coming back to this theme of the people really do have the power. It's Gen-Z. It's millennials who are coming into leadership positions. It's millennials who are sitting at the board table now. So millennials are starting to drive a shift in how businesses are investing in it. And what we think is going to happen is there's going to be an engagement-driven approach to ESG. Because you can't just let it be a reporting framework. Because it's okay to put out an annual report, and meet your standards, and exceed your goals. That's important in building trust. But actually, where you can build impact is if you engage people in that strategy and actually have them, from the bottoms-up, be really excited and co-creating opportunities for people to get involved in your ESG strategy. So, for example, the ability to have people nominate for grants, or have people start to be able to create those movements, like I was saying, through launching giving opportunities or volunteering opportunities. So that engagement-driven approach is, I think, what we're going to see next. And so we tend to be focused on what are the behaviors that will drive the outcomes?

LORI 16:27

That's great to see an engagement-driven approach to ESG so it's not just a framework. I want to talk about your title for a minute. So Chief Social Impact Officer titles are somewhat rare, and it's really inspiring to see that this role has been elevated to the C-level. How does that impact your work? And do you see it becoming more common role in the C-Suite?

SONA 16:50

Yeah. So I'll tell maybe a bit of a personal story about this. So a few years ago, at Benevity, I was on a panel, and it was an International Women's Day panel. And I was sharing kind of my story about how I've grown in leadership. And afterwards, our CEO then, it was Bryan de Lottinville, who was also the founder, pulled me aside and said, "Hey, I think you should be on our executive team and we should talk about what that might look like." And I was a VP of marketing at the time, and I wasn't really thinking about being on an executive team or having a C-level title. So it really got me thinking about, "Well, actually, what is my career path? What do I want to do?" And so Bryan and I, in the course of our one-on-ones over two or three years, talked about do I want to become a chief marketing officer or do I not? And so Bryan one day said-- and he's got this way of being able to see into the future. But he was like, "What about Chief Impact Officer?" And I was like, "What is that?" And Bryan was like, "Yeah, just bringing impact to the table and bringing it as a lens to everything we do." And I was like, that's interesting, but that could be career suicide because I could be the only person with a Chief Impact Officer, and people are going to be like, "What are you going to do?" And if I ever want to leave Benevity, who's going to hire me? Anyways, fast-forward three years later and I was like, you know what? I don't care about my career. What I care about is actually having the ability to make impact matter more for in the business. So I was promoted to Chief Impact Officer. And literally, that week, Prince Harry also got the Chief Impact Officer title for a SaaS company called Better Up. I was like, "Okay, I'm in good company. I've kind of always liked that guy." So anyways, it's been interesting because since then, I've met a number of other chief impact officers. I've read some really funny articles about-- The Economist wrote a very funny article about chief impact officers. You tend to find them much more in the non-profit space, but they're actually more and more showing up in the for-profit space.

SONA 18:53

And really our job is to basically make sure that as we're stewarding the business and making executive decision, that our impact and our purpose also has equal weighting at the table and is an equal part of that decision. And I would say I have led more than I expected on that front because of the kind of world we're living in. So, yeah, definitely, I was on a panel with a few chief impact officers a few weeks ago. It was great to meet more of them. We all have slightly different mandates depending on the industry and kind of what kind of a business it is, but we're all basically saying impact is actually the way of future business in this kind of for-purpose economy.

LORI 19:43

Impact is the way of future business, I love that. I have one last question for you. So Benevity is a leading organization with purpose-driven customer engagement. I'd love for you to talk about Benevity's shift to focus on community-mindedness, and then share what that term means to you all at Benevity.

SONA 20:04

Yeah, for sure. So we've been thinking a lot about this idea of 7.9 billion [armies of want?]. So each one of us has the power to make a change, to influence change, to have a ripple effect. And when we look at some of the gravity of some of the challenges we're facing, so whether that is economic mobility, or the environment, a continued racial and social injustice, the number of women leaving the workforce, for example; there are a number of big hairy problems to solve. And we really don't think that the problems themselves are the biggest challenge. We think how we solve those problems is the biggest challenge. And typically, it's been done through philanthropy, which is rich people's families, or large corporations give back in this obligatory or kind of compensatory way to say, "Yes, we know we're doing business over here, but let's also make sure that we're not harming and that we're supporting the communities that we operate in." And we think if that were to have worked, that would have worked by now. Philanthropy has been around since the 1940s, so we've had a good run. But what we think in this kind of era of democratization and technology is what if we could have harnessed the power of every single individual to start a movement? What if we actually could bring people across cities, across communities, across the globe, across intersections of identity and lived experience to come together and ideate, and co-create, and start to solve these problems? There's probably people sitting in your neighborhood who have brilliant ideas about something and it's not their expertise. Because oftentimes, the people with the expertise are the ones who are limiting the change because they're like, "No, this is how it's done and we got to stay in this box. We've tried this before, it doesn't work." But actually, the people who are outside of the box are going, "Yeah, but we've done a similar thing over here. Maybe we could try it over here with just these [inaudible]." That's what we think is really a big opportunity. So Benevity actually is starting to think about how do we build affinities and communities to bring people together to co-create, to ideate, to collaborate, and then to actually facilitate action? So very much a bottoms-up grassroots movement that we're trying to drive.

LORI 22:32

I am so inspired by our chat and I can't wait to dig more into the data piece so we can keep encouraging that engagement and keep the goodness flowing.

SONA 22:43

Thank you for inviting me. I'm so grateful just to be able to talk about this. We really haven't had the power that we have today so let's use it.

LORI 22:52

Awesome. Thanks, Sona. [music]

MADDIE 22:56

Thanks for listening. Check out our show notes at where there will be links to the resources mentioned as well as Benevity's podcast called Speaking of Purpose. And Sona is actually the host of that podcast, so if you enjoyed listening to her here, be sure to check that out as well. Catch you next time.


This episode was produced by Maddie Johannsen (@MaddieJ). Special thanks to @andyuttley for the theme music track, and @mikecusic for our album artwork.