Bertina Ceccarelli is CEO of NPower, a national nonprofit, rooted in community and on a mission to advance equity in the tech industry.
Across the social good spectrum, there has been a longstanding debate—reignited by the pandemic—about whether companies, nonprofits and other organizations should focus their social investments on humanity’s large-scale future needs versus those that are more immediate.
As a former corporate executive now leading a national nonprofit that invests in people, I don’t believe the question is present versus future. It must be both at once. How do you do that? Take care of people today, and they’ll take care of humanity tomorrow.
For instance, the nonprofit I lead, NPower, provides military veterans and young adults from underserved communities with tech training and support services to prepare them for relevant careers as a gateway to economic mobility. In this way, we serve those from racial, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds underrepresented in the tech sector.
As an illustrative example: After one student completed a tech training program at my organization, they landed a position as a business operations engineer at a major financial services company. From here, they were able to purchase their first home. This is profound for many reasons, including the fact they can now build equity wealth to pass on to the next generation. Investment in people can pay dividends well into the future.
In my experience in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors, companies have numerous opportunities to make their altruism effective for now and beyond. Here are three ways.
1. Invest in your best asset: your people.
Just as you invest capital into cloud technology, plant and equipment, innovations and product development, you need to prioritize investing in the skills, aspirations, growth, performance and opportunities for every level of your workforce.
With a venture capitalist mindset—and leaning into diversity and inclusion—you can uncover and invest in your “hidden figures” by paying attention to the unique skills and capabilities of all your talent.
2. Involve the people you’re investing in.
Social good initiatives can be ineffective if they fail to engage the people you’re determined to help. I recall not too long ago when schools in major U.S. cities received thousands of tablets, but neither the teachers nor the students had the training or curriculum to use them. Key stakeholders obviously weren’t involved in this initiative.
I realized early on that curriculum doesn’t always work for students because different people learn in different ways. IT training is especially tough because it’s technical and, at times, theoretical. Interviewing students, alumni and their employers can help find effective ways to vary your approach. From my own experience, I know that offering more hands-on, practical training, for instance, will help students experience what it will be like day-to-day working at an IT help desk.
For another example, some students say they cannot wait 16 weeks or longer for a full training program to get a job. There are ways to re-configure shorter certification courses so students are able to secure an entry-level job and then continue with more advanced training for even better-paying jobs.
3. Tap into the nonprofit sector for talent and insights.
Truly partner with nonprofits. Recruit from them. Offer rotations and internships to your people and theirs. The days of division between the corporate and nonprofit sectors are over, especially when we need each other to achieve our intersecting goals.
Nonprofits can open doors to new resources, allies and advocates to strengthen and expand your programming and impact. Corporate social responsibility and environmental, social and corporate governance initiatives won’t succeed if they’re created in isolation at corporate headquarters. I urge corporations to expand their network to include the expertise that nonprofits can provide—including long-term studies and co-developed apprenticeship programs.
These people-first strategies might seem elemental—they are. But I’ve found that they’re often overlooked, deprioritized or set aside for short-term business pressures.
Imagining how philanthropy can support futuristic endeavors like colonizing Mars or anticipating sentient technology seems sexy and visionary. But isn’t this mindset a bit arrogant? It can also be dangerous if it means letting us off the hook for the real and urgent social issues of today and diverting altruistic resources.
Solving the future must begin now. It requires humility, empathy, proximate knowledge and wisdom. And it starts with investing in people who are making a difference today—in their own lives and in the lives of others.