As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change the World in The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe Phoenix, Co-founder, and CEO of Givinga, a financial technology company that custom designs corporate giving platforms enabling companies of any size to improve workplace giving and amplify impact. Prior to Givinga, Joe spent 30 years in the global asset management industry in the US and overseas. He has an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and is an active leader, donor, and supporter of regional, national and international causes across the globe.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The journey that leads to Givinga began in 2014. I celebrated my 25th anniversary with my old company and remember thinking to myself “Is this it”? I reassessed what I wanted from my future career, left my job and started talking to people. I was fortunate to meet my two co-founders very early in the process, and together we started forming the business. The company you see today was not anywhere near where we started. Our “North Star” was to build something that had, at its core, a strong social impact component but it took listening, learning and iterating to get us where we are today.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My early career in financial services spanned nearly 30 years- 25 of them with one company. I had recently been promoted to senior management when a series of events nearly destroyed the firm. We went from market leader to total crisis almost overnight. The following five years were the most challenging of my career: loss of assets, angry clients, fleeing employees, brand destruction. But, looking back, those five years reinforced to me what makes a great company sustainable and how fragile brand and reputation are. It also reinforced that 75 years of hard work can literally be erased overnight if you’re not diligent and engaged every day. That trial by fire, and the way the management team responded to adversity and came together to save the company, really prepared me to venture out on my own.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change the World”?
We build customized giving strategies for companies.
What I love about the idea right now is that companies of all sizes are searching for ways to differentiate their brand and project this into the marketplace. Employees are demanding more accountability and transparency from their employers and companies are realizing that the old ways of communicating are no longer working. Additionally, individuals are searching for ways to make a difference. They want to get involved; they want to be able to leave a legacy. Yet, without a ton of money to begin with, it’s just hard to get things rolling. Our big idea brings these groups together on a single platform, driven by companies, and lets them easily collaborate to amplify their impact.
How do you think this will change the world?
To be honest, we never thought about changing the world but we have thought a lot about changing the way companies, and individuals think about giving. Philanthropic giving- which I define as proactive and strategic- has been confined to the largest donors who can afford the resources required to be truly philanthropic. And it’s no surprise that while overall giving has grown, giving by small and mid-sized companies has been declining over the last few years. Providing tools and analytics that help these companies strategically manage their giving activity, combined with a platform to collaborate with employees and reach individuals outside of their organization, has the potential to increase corporate philanthropic impact significantly. In addition, as employees gain access to these tools, it creates an environment that trains the next generation of philanthropist. Link all of this together, and the change potential becomes significant.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
I don’t see a “dark side” to this idea. Technology is the great equalizer. It levels playing fields and, at its best, opens markets and fosters democratization of systems and opportunities. What we’re focused on is aligning companies with their employees to improve the efficiency of giving. Our core engine protects the donor from fraud and our partnership with Charity Navigator provides a research layer for every charity in the US.
Now, an “Intended Consequence” that we are really excited about is the individual donor aspect. If companies, through their employees, act as a portal to get these tools to everyday donors then the potential to move the philanthropic dial begins.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
In 2013 my mother-in-law passed away after a long battle with cancer. My wife wanted to do something meaningful for the hospice that took care of her mother, but the process completely broke down. She had friends giving money that she didn’t know about, missing tax receipts and my company’s match program took months to approve. Let’s just say that it was a really difficult and inefficient process from start to finish. What should have been an empowering experience of leaving a lasting legacy in honor of a loved one instead left her feeling empty. That’s when the proverbial light bulb went off for me. When we realized companies were facing a lot of these same issues that’s when it got “real.”
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We need companies to look at philanthropy as an investment in their communities, employees, and brands and to think about giving as an integral and measurable part of overall corporate strategy. Currently, many firms view giving platforms as a “nice to have” benefit for their employees and treat philanthropy as a cost of doing business versus a brand-enhancing investment. They haven’t fully grasped the power of strategic philanthropy to their bottom line and how easily it can be linked to brand development and strategic positioning. If we get companies to see the power of organized, collaborative giving, and its ability to improve business results, we’ll roll.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- I wish I’d seen this Matt Barrie presentation earlier Https://youtu.be/ri7SqAMHY8o. We wasted a lot of time looking for funding sources when what we should have been doing was looking for customers.
- I wish I’d had the courage to start down this path earlier in my career. There is nothing better than building a business from the ether.
- I wish someone told me to multiply my time and cost estimates by 2.5X.
- I wish someone would have told me that while almost everyone you know will like your idea, the only real proof of concept is whether they will buy it. Give people something to buy as quickly as possible.
- I wish I’d met Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. In my opinion, he was the first true social entrepreneur. He transformed his passion for climbing and the environment into a company that pioneered the idea of a for-profit entity also having social responsibility.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Be the best at whatever you are currently doing while constantly challenging yourself to learn new skills and explore new opportunities. Never stop looking for the one thing that really inspires you. If you’re lucky enough to find it, be “aggressively patient” and see it all the way through.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
Givinga’s technology backlog! Joking aside, we’re super interested in the student loan problem, and I’d invest in a solution that would help eliminate that burden.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
- If what you are doing is worth doing, do it until it’s done.
- Don’t be afraid to be the dumbest person on your team.
- Read voraciously. Listen actively. Practice constantly. Play hard.
- Take what you do seriously, take yourself less so.
- Hire the best and delegate.
- Give back.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
- Know your strengths. Hire the best to fill your weaknesses. Get out of the way.
- If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
- Try to hire your next boss.
- If your team looks like you, it’s a weak team. If it acts like you, it’s lethal.
- Encourage friction, independence, and diversity of opinion but make sure they orbit around, and support, a clear and uncompromising core set of values.
Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
There is a shift underway in the American workplace that is having a significant impact on the way companies connect with consumers, engage their workforces and project philanthropic activity. In 2018, corporations were credited with just 5% of the $400 billion given to charity which we believe is significantly lower than their actual contribution. In addition, consumers and employees are challenging companies to dramatically increase their commitment to social impact. Givinga enables companies to align giving strategy with overall corporate strategy, track all activity and engage their employees without losing control of the assets. We develop a complete picture of a company’s total philanthropic impact and help them project that image efficiently into the marketplace.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.