Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Restoring Chitimacha: How Companies Can Serve as Agents of Cultural Preservation

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Washington

“The artist has a special task and duty: the task of reminding men of their humanity and the promise of their creativity.”

As historian, sociologist and critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) so eloquently noted in the quote above, all art – visual, musical, literary, architectural, performing, culinary – reflects the best of humanity.  We are, after all, the culture that we create.

This month, the Smithsonian held its 46th Folk Life Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the institution’s annual celebration of American and global cultural heritage. I try to attend each year to remind myself of the richness and diversity of human expression and our collective human achievements. The Smithsonian calls the exposition “an exercise in cultural democracy,” where cultural practitioners “speak for themselves, with each other, and to the public.” I can attest that festival visitors are encouraged not merely to observe, but “to participate – to learn, sing, dance, eat traditional foods, and converse with people presented in the Festival program.” Indeed, where else can you nibble on Azerbaijani dolma, join a discussion on native Hawaiian aquaculture, and reflect on graffiti-based public murals all while listening to Mariachi music?

The fact that museums and institutions like the Smithsonian and other non-profits, NGOs and academic organizations (along with a few government agencies) would work so hard to preserve our collective culture is heartening and noble, but not surprising. For many institutions, this is part of their core mission and, for some, their raison d’être. But, as with so many other aspects of life in the 21st century, the private sector has a tremendous opportunity to assist in the vital mission of cultural preservation and celebration. In fact, many critics have argued that, through globalization, the great forces of commerce and industry have actually helped to spread and speed the homogenization of today’s global culture. They have a point. That’s why I’m encouraged to see so many companies embracing cultural preservation as part of their corporate responsibility commitment, and working to find ways to protect, celebrate and share some of the most unique and important manifestations of our global culture, particularly those elements that are threatened. 

Many of these efforts are perfectly aligned with the specific business goals, core competencies and products and services of the companies leading them. Here are a few of my favorite examples:

  • When China’s famous Terracotta Warriors were threatened with several strains of fungi in the late 1990s, Johnson & Johnson brought its products and expertise to bear, working closely with scientists at the Qin Shi Huang Terracotta Army Museum. Following the successful development of anti-fungal solutions that have since helped to preserve the sculptures, the company established a laboratory dedicated to research on material protection, which to date has contributed to the preservation of other cultural relics around the world.
  • HP (a former client) is using its IT infrastructure to help preserve art and cultural treasures around the world. Collections at the National Gallery of London and the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi are being digitized and cataloged, and in some cases, masterpieces are being restored, with the help of the company’s digital and imaging technologies. In 2002, HP launched an effort with the Vatican Library to digitize one of the world’s largest collections of manuscripts, documents and ancient texts, making them available to millions of people online. HP has also provided tools and resources to 18 Native American communities in California to help them record and archive tribal languages, histories and elders’ stories.
  • In 2004, language learning software company Rosetta Stone launched a program to preserve endangered languages. The company works with indigenous groups around the world to develop software specifically designed to help revitalize at-risk and in some cases, already extinct languages. The program aims to reinforce endangered languages with current speakers and introduce them to younger generations. A great example is the company’s effort to preserve and revive the “sleeping” language of the Chitimacha tribe of south central Louisiana, whose last fluent speaker died in 1940. Equipped with the new software, the tribe is actively working to restore Chitimacha as a spoken language among young people at school and at home, both on and off the tribe’s reservation. Rosetta Stone also instituted a grant program to address any financial barriers that might prevent groups from participating in the project.
  • Google is using its platform and technologies to preserve culture in a number of ways. Three notable initiatives are the company’s Endangered Language Project, the Google Art Project and Google Books. All of these efforts provide access to material and content, but more than that, they help foster understanding and appreciation. They facilitate research and collaboration between individuals and institutions, and encourage conversation, interaction and exchange. In this way, by sharing culture and making it accessible, they are also helping to preserve it.

There is so much need and so much opportunity here for enlightened companies to incorporate cultural preservation into their sustainability and CSR platforms. I would love to see a global food manufacturer or a major restaurant chain collecting and preserving indigenous recipes and disappearing foodways. And how fitting would it be for a major music label to record and capture for posterity endangered folksongs and tribal dances?

With ever decreasing coffers, governments at all levels are facing increasingly more difficult choices in terms of what to support and the degree to which they can support it. This reality isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Non-profits and academic institutions are equally challenged, leaving fewer resources to put behind preserving and celebrating our cultural heritage. Many companies are helping to stage exhibits and performances and to keep the lights on at museums, theaters and institutions through sponsorships, corporate donations and cause marketing. But for those able and willing to go beyond simply writing a check, saving and celebrating the best of human art and achievement presents a powerful opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.

Business… with Liberty and Justice for All (Part Two)

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Washington

The world is more peaceful today than it has been since 2009. This is the finding of the 2012 Global Peace Index, released last week by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

As noted in my previous post, with a few unfortunate exceptions (think Syria and Sudan), this annual study of relative peacefulness and stability throughout the world is encouraging. It also reaffirms, for me at least, the role that the private sector can play in democratic development.

Once a company has sufficiently addressed its core sustainability and responsibility fundamentals, true corporate citizens can work with and support other sectors of society in promoting and advancing liberty and justice, the cornerstones of democracy.

If the Arab Spring (the subject of my last post) was about liberty, then the Special Court for Sierra Leone was about justice.

On June 5, just days after the sentencing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes, my firm organized and sponsored a panel discussion at the National Press Club on the global impact of Taylor’s war crimes conviction.

Taylor was convicted at The Hague on April 26 by the United Nations backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which unanimously found him guilty on all counts of the indictments against him. On May 30, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by rebel forces during Sierra Leone’s long and devastating civil war. Not since the Nuremburg trials after World War II has a former head of state been convicted of war crimes.

The panel was moderated by Hill + Knowlton Strategies Vice Chairman Frank Mankiewicz and featured special prosecutor Stephen J. Rapp, ambassador-at-large and leader of the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the U.S. Department of State; Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow in the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies; Jonathan Temin, director of the Sudan Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace; and Corinne Dufka, senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

The discussion concluded that a country cannot flourish if its people believe there are two disparate sets of rules being applied. Now that the citizenry truly believes that justice is possible and has been fairly administered, all sectors of Sierra Leone’s society—especially private enterprise—can prosper.  More on the linkages between transitional justice, security and development can be found in the World Bank’s latest World Development Report.

While companies were not permitted to contribute financially to the operations of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, they were able to support it in other ways. My firm provided pro bono strategic counsel, media relations and communications services. Legal and research services were also donated by other firms. No one seems to take issue with whether or not companies should be allowed to provide such in-kind donations to entities like the Special Court, but debate continues as to whether or not corporations should be allowed to provide direct financial support for their operations. Microsoft made what is thought to be one of the first such contributions when it donated $100,000 to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia. I understand the concerns this may raise, but provided the right checks and balances are in place to ensure impartiality, I see no issues in allowing companies to express their support morally, in-kind or financially. Such donations seem like noble expressions of a desire for the stability, development and prosperity that can only come through justice.

As I am reminded every day, there are many dimensions of corporate responsibility. Every company has something to contribute to society, even when it comes to fostering democracy. With the continued involvement and support of the private sector, let’s hope the positive trends reported in this year’s Peace Index continue in the years ahead.

Business… with Liberty and Justice for All

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Washington

The 2012 Global Peace Index was released this week. This annual study of relative peacefulness and stability, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, found that in spite of some unfortunate pockets of strife and unrest (think Syria and Somalia), the world is more peaceful today than it has been since 2009.

In the face of so many challenges confronting our world, this is a positive development. It also reaffirms, for me at least, that in today’s dynamic, globalized world, the private sector has a responsibility and an opportunity to promote and advance the cornerstones of democracy – liberty and justice.

Once the more basic boxes of sustainability and responsibility are checked, corporate citizens can work with and support other sectors of society in ways, both large and small, that are mutually beneficial. After all, free enterprise is vital to democracy. And conversely, rule of law, transparent government, individual and property rights, the free flow of information—all hallmarks of true democracy—are essential to free enterprise.

The Center for International Private Enterprise said it best in their landmark policy paper, Helping Build Democracy that Delivers:

“Together with other citizens and segments of society, the business sector must play its part in democratic development. As a key component of civil society, business possesses resources, human capital, and problem-solving capabilities that can benefit society as a whole. A politically engaged private sector can improve policymaking, represent legitimate economic interests, and defend democratic rights and institutions.”

There is a lot corporations can do, directly and indirectly, long and short-term – from advocacy and moral support (alone or through trade groups or chambers of commerce), to new ventures, partnerships and direct investment. The dialogue at two recent events I attended underscores this point. A few weeks ago, I co-chaired a roundtable conference on building civil society after the Arab Spring, hosted by the Association of Americans for Civic Responsibility (AACR). And just last week, my company sponsored a forum with the National Press Club’s International Correspondents Committee on the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes.

As I noted during the AACR roundtable, from the smallest street market peddlers to the largest global corporations, there can be no mistake that businesses played a central role in spurring, supporting and shaping the Arab Spring. While experts continue to debate and discuss the specific root causes for the uprisings and escalation of civil protests, it’s likely that historians will one day point to the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi as a primary catalyst. Bouazizi was a man who felt so harassed, humiliated, repressed and defeated that he could only envision one response. From that horribly sad but galvanizing statement by a small business owner with a fruit cart to the tacit and explicit support of some of the world’s largest global corporations, including telecommunications and social media companies, business and the Arab Spring have arguably been inextricably linked.

In the months and years ahead, how will economic growth and democratic reform continue to play a role in the region? What can the private sector do to bring about positive changes in democratic governance and economic development? And what role and responsibility does the business sector really hold? These were just a few of the questions we explored in a panel session that included Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies; Gregory Simpson, Senior Project Officer at the Center for International Private Enterprise; and Nivin Safwat AbdelMeguid, a Leaders for Democracy fellow and research assistant at the American University of Cairo, who provided a firsthand account of what she experienced during the historic events in her native Egypt. I encourage those interested to review the summary report of the entire roundtable conference.

If the Arab Spring was about liberty, then the Special Court for Sierra Leone was about justice.

More on that in my next post.

Telling the Whole Story

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill + Knowlton Strategies, Washington

More jobs and cheaper energy. In the lead up to this week’s Super Tuesday primaries, these have been constant refrains from the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. They have also been central messages from President Obama.  No doubt, they will continue to be among the key themes repeated between now and November 6.

Almost as if on cue, comes a new study by Deutsche Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation. The report suggests that a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency retrofits across the country could save Americans $1 trillion over the next ten years and help create 3 million jobs, all while reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 600 million metric tons, roughly 10% of current levels.

It is an exciting and compelling prospect. But aside from how well this narrative plays into election year campaign themes, it underscores the connection between sustainability and a company’s financial performance. And this is only the latest of several recent studies that show increasingly stronger connections between environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues and business performance and success.

Take a look at the new study by researchers at Harvard Business School and London Business School  – The Impact of a Corporate Culture of Sustainability on Corporate Behavior and Performance, the KPMG study – Expect the Unexpected: Building Business Value in a Changing World, and the third annual Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study by MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group.

More evidence of this connection is found in Responsible Investment: Creating Value from Environmental, Social and Governance issues, a new study of the private equity sector by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The research found that 94 percent of respondents believe ESG activities can create value.

For years, my firm has provided counsel to companies around the world, big and small, on how to embrace corporate responsibility and sustainability, and how to communicate effectively about that commitment.  Increasingly, as more companies are seeing the connection between financial and non-financial performance, they recognize the need to integrate their communications and reporting – to tell the whole story.

To help provide this guidance, we’ve partnered with Harvard Business School Professor Robert G. Eccles, one of the world’s foremost experts on integrated reporting, and one of the authors of the aforementioned HBS study. Research by Professor Eccles finds that companies with a long, consistent track record of engaging in and disclosing efforts to operate with ESG policies in mind significantly outperform their counterparts over the long-term, both in terms of financial performance and rate of return for investors.

As the size, reach and influence of global corporations continues to grow, so too does the public’s demand for transparency and accountability.  According to new H+K Strategies research, more than two-thirds of Americans hold corporations directly accountable for their actions.  But the same holds true for the positive impact a company can have.  A new Deloitte Touch Tohmatsu Limited study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit finds that 76% of respondents believe that the value of a company should be measured not only by its profits, but by the positive contributions its core business makes to society.

For business – whatever the product, whatever the sector – it seems there’s never been a better time to tell the whole story.

GSA Makes Federal Case of E-Waste Recycling

posted by Andrew Cuneo

By Andy Cuneo, Account Supervisor, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Washington, D.C.

Since its inception in late 2008, the Hill+Knowlton Strategies Green Team has made a concerted effort to be responsible environmental citizens. From new silverware to new energy efficient light bulbs, we’ve placed a strong emphasis on recycling and energy conservation. This exercise culminated in an extremely successful e-waste campaign with our client, United Cerebral Palsy, where we collected nearly 1,000 lbs.

On Thursday, the General Services Administration made a very important declaration that all federal agencies are now banned from disposing used electronics in landfills or incinerators. Instead, a bulletin from the GSA offered agencies explicit instructions on where to send electronics for recycling. While some agencies have been doing this for years, the mandate is critical to ensure the rest follow suit. It’s a move that probably should have been made long ago, but I’m both pleased and proud to see action taking place.

Not all e-waste recycling is created equal. Recycling electronics in one place doesn’t always offer the environmental return you’re looking for. There are operations that offer e-waste recycling, only to dump and burn it later on down the line. But there ARE credible third party recycling organizations that take great care in both the materials, and their employees. Agencies, companies and consumers MUST do their due diligence in selecting the right company.

We all need to take a page out of the GSA’s book and look for ways to recycle our old phones, computers and TVs. In the weeks ahead, H+K plans to drive another e-waste recycling program with United Cerebral Palsy. We’ll be sharing information on how you can make a difference as well.

For now, congratulations to the GSA and the Federal Government. Great move. Let’s keep it rolling!

America “lost” the iPhone work – but maybe that’s not the worst part

posted by Tara Knight

I was forwarded a recent New York Times article about Apple’s manufacturing in China that really got me thinking about the scope of Corporate Social Responsibility and the entire ecosystem that exists around multinational companies. The intended – and unintended consequences of the choice of actions by corporate management, and ultimately, what it says about our societies as a whole.

What really got me thinking in the article though was a story of the creation of the glass screen for the iPhone.  Steve Jobs wasn’t happy with the prototype’s plastic screen, and demanded a glass alternative that wouldn’t scratch. Famously uncompromising, his insistence demanded the flexibility and instant change of manufacturing capacity and capability that could only be accommodated in another jurisdiction (China) primarily because of working expectations (both written and unwritten) that are no longer legal, expected or accepted in many other countries.

The article quotes a current Apple executive, saying “we shouldn’t be criticized for using Chinese workers. The U.S. has stopped producing people with the skills we need.” In this case, however, what Apple needed, was workers who could be roused from their dormitory beds in the middle of the night for a 12 hour shift (Apple does monitor and publish an audit report of their suppliers). Obviously, Apple is only one of many companies choosing more “flexible” and “capable” locations for their manufacturing needs.

What does it say about our society that expediency and efficiency – valuable and real requirements of business today – have a trump card over how we treat and cooperate with other societies? I know many brilliant people have tackled this question, with few palatable answers – and the cynical among us might learn towards the idea of corporate activity as inherently pathological.

I am caught – ultimately, our corporations, our institutions, our interactions are defined by someone –and how these “someones” charged with the responsibility of directing organizations choose to  interact and collaborate with the world are an example set for the people around them.  I fall more with John Locke if only that I cannot bear the idea of Thomas Hobbes’ society that puts so little faith in its members. The question remains, in our global economy, is it possible to be a healthy, ethical corporation? How do we realize a global social contract – or are we simply unable to think beyond our immediate world and consider the reality of others?

Talking Sustainability and Energy with One of the Best in the Business

posted by Andrew Cuneo

By Andy Cuneo, Senior Account Executive, Washington D.C.

In late March, I had the fortunate opportunity to join a few colleagues in meeting and talking energy and sustainability with one of the best minds on the topic, blogger and Fortune reporter Marc Gunther. As an avid reader of Marc’s, and a big fan of his work, knowledge and interest in sustainability, I spent the hour sharing thoughts and anecdotes about energy, sustainability, what companies are doing well as well as how Marc prepares for being an MC for panel discussions at top trade shows.

As a bonus, I joined fellow H&K DC Tech Team colleague Lauren Wilson for our regular video interview series on our sister blog, Tech & The District.  “Tech in Five” as it’s known brings some of the top reporters, thinkers and analysts in to our DC office to educate our readers on how they see technology, sustainability, issues on Capitol Hill and what it’s like to live in Washington D.C.

Last week, our team posted the latest in the “Tech in Five” series and sat down with Marc. What inspires Marc? Where will our next energy source come from?  And what does he think of the Nationals chances in 2011? You’ll be very interested and inspired (as we were) on what he had to say.

What Earth Day Means to Us

posted by Andrew Cuneo

Hill & Knowlton would like to extend a warm and happy Earth Day greeting to you all. This is a special day; one that pushes us to be better environmental citizens. It is also a reminder to take a moment to reflect and take part in one activity that will reduce your environmental footprint – whether it’s using fewer lights, running less water, or even walking to a destination instead of driving to one.

In the spirit of Earth Day, our Green Team (comprised of staff from across our U.S. offices) wanted to share a few thoughts on what Earth Day means to us.  We wish you a Happy Earth Day!

  •  “Earth Day is an important reminder that we need to do all we can to leave our world in good shape for our children, and theirs. An old Native American proverb sums it up best: We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children. Happy Earth Day!” — Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Washington D.C.
  • “When I think of Earth Day, I think of all the things I can do to help preserve our planet for my daughter’s generation, and every generation that follows. I think of an old Greek proverb that says ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.’” Andy Cuneo, Senior Account Executive, Washington D.C.
  • “To be grateful for what you have, and to think of ways for you to constantly express that gratitude through the little things that matter. Reflecting and not being wasteful are good ways to show that you are aware of what you’ve been blessed with. It just goes to show that you are indeed thankful for it.” — Christopher Ward, Facility Supervisor, New York
  • “It’s an annual reminder that the world is bigger than all of us. A prompt to use today to start a new habit, and perhaps give up on an old. That we can make a difference, one small act at a time.” — Lena Davie, Vice President, Tampa
  • “Earth Day is the day that I will think more about what I can do for Mother Nature and make my Green resolutions for the year. It is also a year to review my Green efforts made last year. Earth Day should not only be the day for us to treat the planet better, but should be the day for us to show more energy and enthusiasm to plan for a Green future.” Theorina Li, Syracuse Fellow, Washington D.C.
  • “To me, Earth Day is a reminder to stop and appreciate our natural environment and to do my part to go green at home.” Austin Lamb, Senior Account Executive, Chicago
  • “A day to honor the energy and goodness of the Earth and to unite to help keep it beautiful, clean and healthy.” Melissa Penn, Senior Account Executive, Los Angeles
  • “Earth Day serves as a reminder and staple of what we should be cognizant everyday – ensuring that we are all doing our part to protect the environment, which is intrinsically linked to the safety and security of our communities. And it also gives us – as public relations professionals – an opportunity to stress the importance of corporate social responsibility to our clients – which now more than ever needs to be a cornerstone of reputation management. We all need to do our part to make our neighborhoods more green – and I’m thankful that Earth Day reinforces this point.” — Brett Broesder, Senior Account Executive, New York
  • “At a time when “being green” has become commercialized, it is heartening to remind ourselves though our green actions and in-office discussions how achievable it is to be green the other 364 days of the year.”  - Mallory Thompson, Account Executive and Sarah Shahrabani, Senior Account Executive, Seattle

With Earth Day Closing in, Here are some Tweets to Follow

posted by Andrew Cuneo

By Jennifer Hamilton, Account Executive, Hill & Knowlton in Tampa

Earth Day is right around the corner – Friday, April 22! Since this day is all about educating people about current environmental issues and getting them to actively do something “green”, the more you know, the more likely you will take part in addressing those issues.

Mashable has indicated that Twitter’s analysis of the 25 billion tweets sent in 2010 showed the Gulf Oil Spill as the top overall trend, demonstrating how environmental topics are becoming more mainstream.

So, to kick off conversation a little early for Earth Day, here’s a list of 10 green Twitter users, in no particular order, to follow for some great tips and info on sustainability.

  1. @EPAgov – The U.S. EPA has a total of 18 different Twitter handles, tailored to different green areas of interest, from their blog and green building to different regions of the U.S. Check out the entire list on their Twitter profile page.
  2. @nytimesgreen – The New York Times Green section links to current news discussed on their Green blog.
  3. @ESA_org – The Ecological Society of America tweets updates on the latest research and headlines regarding the health and safety of planet Earth.
  4. @CNNGreen – Another news-related Twitter user, CNNGreen tweets about the latest news and research related to the climate change.
  5. @the_daily_green – Described as the consumer’s guide to the green revolution, TheDailyGreen has a remarkable audience of 20,000-plus followers.
  6. @sustainablog – Jeff McIntire-Strasburg microblogs about how to live a sustainable lifestyle.
  7. @bestgreenblogs – They’re the source for tweets, retweets and follows on all things green, eco, organic and sustainable.
  8. @Earth911 – Check out Earth 911’s tweets for tips on recycling.
  9. @HuffPostGreen – This Internet newspaper posts about the latest environmental news.
  10. @seth_leitman – This Green Living Guy and Author and Series Editor of McGraw-Hill’s The Green Guru Guides delivers hard news along with some green humor.

Know of other great green users to follow? Comment below and share!

Helping Japan in the Best Way Possible

posted by Chad Tragakis

by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington

Just over a year ago, in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster ever to befall Haiti, I wrote about the generous and inspirational commitments that individuals, organizations and corporations were making in response. I also wrote about the very best way to help in times of disaster, based on lessons long learned by government, NGOs and others in the disaster response and relief community.

Now, in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster ever to befall Japan, I feel compelled to revisit some of those same themes and learnings. It’s unfortunate that just a year later, we are faced once more with a seemingly unprecedented crisis and the prospect of a long, hard recovery and rebuilding process. If there is any glimmer of a bright spot here for humanity, it is that when times are their worst, people and companies are often at their best. And, with each disaster, we have the benefit of knowing what worked – or didn’t – in previous instances.

According to the latest data collected by the Business Civic Leadership Center, response by the corporate sector has been incredibly strong – more than $200 million dollars in aid committed in just over 10 days. If giving continues at this pace, it is on track to surpass business support for disaster relief efforts following the January, 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Individual giving to major relief agencies is also picking up, totaling more than $64 million just one week after the disaster. And that’s a very good thing, because the cost, by any measure, is going to be severe, even for as advanced and industrialized a nation as Japan. Experts now estimate the cost could reach $309 billion, making it the world’s costliest natural disaster ever.

Most telling for me about the true need and real plight of those affected was the appeal I received from ChildFund International, an organization that I support. On an ordinary day, it noted, ChildFund Japan raises funds for the programs it implements in developing countries around the world… but today is no ordinary day. For the first time in its history, ChildFund Japan launched an emergency response effort for its own country.

One of the most important lessons the world has learned from responding to disasters is that cash donations are the best way to help the people impacted, especially in the initial aftermath. Cash is immediate, it is flexible, and it provides for culturally and geographically appropriate support. Most importantly, it allows disaster relief organizations to purchase exactly what is needed, and to procure materials near the affected area, cutting down on transportation time and cost. It also supports regional economies and speeds the rebuilding process.
One of my clients, the Center for International Disaster Information, has been tracking and advocating for responsible and appropriate disaster response for more than 20 years. Over that time, they have witnessed some incredibly insensitive, culturally inappropriate, inefficient, and even harmful responses. Simply put, when individuals, groups or companies send stuff that is unneeded, supply chains get clogged, boxes must be unloaded and warehoused eating up precious time, personnel and storage space. Ports near Sendai and many throughout the Miyagi Prefecture are severely damaged; some will be closed for months. There are extremely limited points of entry for the critical relief supplies being brought in by experienced agencies, so it’s critical that they not be choked up by well-meaning but unneeded donations.
Worse than that, in some instances after disasters people send items apparently without any thought at all. Hard to believe, but people have sent winter coats to affected people in tropical climates; companies have sent stale cookies and long-expired medicines; canned ham has been shipped to predominantly Muslim countries and canned beef to predominantly Hindu areas; in one shipment of donated supplies, a relief agency found used tea bags; party decorations were mailed to families who had just lost their homes. And, in perhaps the worst instance of inappropriate disaster response ever, one company sent a shipment of breast implants. However well-intentioned, it often seems that some companies and organizations don’t take into account the full impact of their donations. They are in such a rush to act, that they forget – or just plain fail – to think.
That’s why in the midst of this tragedy, I am encouraged by the thoughtfulness and innovativeness of corporate response, not to mention the sheer volume of companies expressing an interest in helping. Some companies, because of their unique capabilities, core competencies, knowledge and expertise, and product and service offerings, are in great positions to bring those things to bear after a disaster. This is especially true when they establish long-term relationships with relief organizations ahead of time, and invest in preparedness and contingency planning. 

In the past week alone, I have read about and learned of some truly responsible and wholly appropriate ways for companies to do their part for the people of Japan.

First and foremost, companies are giving cash – lots of cash – and they are directing it to the experienced, credible relief agencies that are already on the ground, the ones in the best position to help and to help quickly. Firms are matching employee donations, and many are waiving transaction and service fees for their customers who are making donations. And, many companies are giving products, services and expertise that have been specifically requested by agencies on the ground – equipment, supplies and know-how that are desperately needed right now.

  • Coca-Cola has pledged $31 million in cash and much needed beverages to relief and reconstruction efforts. The company is also donating its TV and radio ad time to public service announcements encouraging Japanese citizens to conserve energy, a necessity given continued power outages in much of the country.
  • Wireless carriers and telecommunications firms are facilitating text donations and allowing customers to call and text family in Japan free for a specified period. Others are offering free programming from TV Japan to keep their subscribers aware of what’s happening.
  • Financial services firms like American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Discover, Citi and Western Union are waiving fees on donations and money transfers to Japan for specified periods. Wells Fargo has programmed its ATM machines to accept donations for relief efforts directly from customers.
  • PayPal, Zynga, Living Social, Sony, Apple, Facebook and other tech, gaming and social media firms are doing some wonderfully creative things to help people make financial contributions.
  • Airlines are awarding bonus miles to their frequent flyers as an incentive to make donations. Hotels are allowing their customers to convert rewards points into cash donations to relief organizations.
  • Fed-Ex and UPS are providing logistics and transportation support to a variety of relief agencies and NGOs already on the ground.
  • GE is contributing $5 million in cash, equipment and service – including critical expertise and a 24-hour command center related to their nuclear energy business.

There are many, many other great examples of companies not only doing the right thing, but responding in the right way. Take a look at some of the inspiring commitments being, cataloged by the BCLC’s Corporate Aid Tracker. The bottom line is that sending cash donations is the very best way to help the people of Japan, especially right now. CIDI and the State Department are directing people and organizations interested in helping to InterAction, a large coalition of U.S.-based international non-governmental organizations. 

Many of the same companies noted above have also announced major commitments to provide additional funding, materials and support during the post-disaster phase, when rebuilding and re-development will be the priority. This is important, because as we have seen so many times in the past, when a disaster no longer makes the headlines or the evening news, the world often forgets about it and support for vital rebuilding efforts can wane. The long-term generosity and commitment of many companies will help pave Japan’s long road to recovery that lies ahead.

Our hearts are with Japan and her people. As Emperor Akihito said in his solemn address, “those who were affected by the earthquake must not lose hope.” They must “survive tomorrow onwards…and continue to oversee the rebuilding process.”

A few blocks away from where I sit, thousands of cherry blossom trees are blooming. These are the living legacy of a gift of friendship to the U.S. from the people of Japan 99 years ago. In addition to being beautiful symbols of friendship, these trees are symbols of strength, hope and resilience. So too is Japan strong, hopeful and resilient. Like the sun so perfect and proud in the center of her flag, the Nisshōki, the sun will rise over Sendai tomorrow. And it will rise the day after that. It will shine on Japan. And in time, her people will once more be able to bask in its warmth.