Using 'Powerful Institutions to Drive Social Good'

Helping with homework and hoops, and simply talking about the choices facing at-risk boys, allows a D.C. corporate volunteer strategist to give back — year-round.

Editor's note: David Bradley, owner of Atlantic Media, which publishes National Journal, founded the Advisory Board in 1979 and sold it in 1997.

Loosely, Graham McLaughlin, 32, is paid to volunteer and to help other employees do the same. As director of community impact at The Advisory Board, a D.C.-based technology, research, and consulting firm focused on improving higher education and health, he oversees proposals and projects involving staff volunteerism. On Tuesdays afternoons, though, he mentors twin teenage boys in the Edgewood Terrace housing project through Beacon House. On Saturdays, he plays basketball with kids at a juvenile detention facility.

A University of North Carolina graduate who double-majored in psychology and management and who has worked at the Advisory Board since 2007, McLaughlin acknowledges he's lucky to blend his workplace responsibility with his personal expectation to help others.

Here he also explains the company's strategy for volunteerism, which includes approaches advocated by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy and the Points of Light Corporate Institute.

This interview, conducted by Jody Brannon, has been edited for length and clarity.

I've always been interested in how to use powerful institutions to drive social good. In the nonprofit space, you're limited by constrained resources. At the government level it's more about policy than direct action. At a foundation, you're providing resources but don't always get to ensure their efficient deployment. All of those three sectors are important, but corporations are in the unique position to drive impact in a myriad of ways — through their market power and ethical business practices, and also by imbuing a sense of responsibility and purpose in employees' daily jobs and through meaningful volunteer opportunities. By encouraging an attitude of stewardship that blends the head and heart you enable people to utilize their unique personal and professional skills in a way that's truly meaningful. The potential to develop this type of impact-enabling environment is what motivates me in my own work.

I'm blessed in a number of ways, both with work and personally. I hit the genetic lottery being born into a loving and caring environment, so I consider it my responsibility to support those who were not as lucky.

Teenagers are at a really interesting point in their lives because the decisions they're going to make in the next couple years will have a profound impact on their lives. Starting in high school, your academic decisions determine whether you will go to college, drop out, or learn a trade that can build a solid economic future. Your life decisions can lead you to become a parent before you may be ready or to have a criminal record, but they can also set you up for positive life outcomes and relationships you will have forever. I enjoy working with teenagers who have not had academic, family, and/or economic support in order to provide them needed support as they enter this critical time in their lives. What we discuss may not alter what happens, but I hope it does provide them at least a better framework for their ongoing decision-making.

Working directly with teens is the "heart" part. The head part is chairing the board of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. In my role on the DCAYA board, we focus on researching and advocating for the right policies and funding structures to best support youth. For instance, just this week the D.C. City Council voted to provide free transportation to youth up to, I think, 24 years old, a huge boost for kids trying to improve their futures but having to take a bus cross-town to their internship or school. I'm grateful to the council for listening to this recommendation. Some of these things that don't seem like a big deal can have a transformative effect on these kids' lives, and this is a good example.

The Advisory Board has the most generous leave policy in the nation, 10 hours of paid daytime leave per month, enabling me to mentor the boys, make board meetings, etc.

Obviously enabling your employees to have the time to make an impact is critical to developing a great volunteer program, but you also have to develop this desire to make a difference in your staff. To do this, you need to show staff how their skills and time will make a meaningful difference, and then ensure every opportunity truly does make an impact. For our firm, this is focusing on our unique skill sets in health and education, and using this knowledge along with our technology and research skills to improve public health and educational outcomes by partnering with high quality nonprofits where we have complementary skill sets.

For instance, 58 percent of people would take a 15 percent pay cut to work at an organization with values like their own. "Meaningful work" was the No. 1 answer in a Realized Worth study with millennials to the question, "What do you want from your job?" People clearly want to make a difference in their work, so the key is how do you do so in a way that improves the world and your business.

For instance, our tech team wanted to improve their tech skills but also become better in interacting with clients and internal partners. We were doing a data-mining project for an anti-human-trafficking partner. Each member of the team had separate skills, but they came together to teach each other.

We work to ensure every interaction is truly meaningful — to show how you can use your head and your heart. We had people come in — a social worker, policy experts — to show that in D.C. five miles can be a world of demographic difference in education and life opportunities between Ward 8 and Ward 3.

At our firm, we take our stewardship of the shareholders' money seriously, so we don't give away their money lightly. Every dollar is seen as an investment in our people and our business, as well as an investment in the community, so any grants we make are to organizations where our people are developing personally and professionally in addition to making a difference.

We're a company with about a $2 billion market cap and 2,600 employees. At that size, we're not GE or Wal-Mart — we're not going to change the world by switching suppliers or adopting a new policy. But we're not a 50-person firm that should probably focus on just helping one organization. Therefore, we look to transform the communities we're based by utilizing our unique skill sets as a firm. If I had to give one piece of advice to other volunteer programs it would be to do the same thing — figure out the scope of your program where you can have a truly transformative difference, and then focus your unique gifts on making a positive difference in that area.

Admittedly though, I have it easy. I pinch myself every day to work here. This is a place that really cares. People come here because they're idealistic — they want to improve education and health care; our core values state this, and our execs are on board, so it's an easy lift. And then personally for me I love having that time to be so invested in this city that I love. I'm really lucky professionally.


Are you part of the demographic that is the Next America? Are you a catalyst who fosters change for the next generation? Or do you know someone who is? The Next America welcomes first-person perspectives from activists, thought leaders and people representative of a diverse nation. Email us. And please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


Are you part of the demographic that is the Next America? Are you a catalyst who fosters change for the next generation? Or do you know someone who is? The Next America welcomes first-person perspectives from activists, thought leaders and people representative of a diverse nation. Email us. And please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Jody Brannon contributed to this article