Mission North Surpasses $1M in Donations to Social Equity and Sustainability with E3thos

Five years ago, Mission North launched its corporate social responsibility program, E3thos, to support nonprofits in our local communities of San Francisco, New York and Portland in their fight for equity, empowerment and the environment. Since then, Mission North has committed more than $1 million towards these causes through employee-directed grants to organizations like the San Francisco Education Fund and Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, and pro bono services for clients including the Fintech Equality Coalition, Code2040 and Technovation. In addition, our team has collectively volunteered thousands of hours with programs that help students in our highest-need local public schools, tend to our local parks and make meals for those in need. 

At a time of widening inequality, daily injustices against vulnerable communities, and an unmatched urgency to address climate change, many employers are looking for ways to answer the call for corporate resources. I caught up with our co-CEO Bill Bourdon to discuss the genesis and evolution of E3thos, why earlier is better when it comes to building a CSR — even if resources are limited — and how brands can and should move with authenticity as the era of stakeholder capitalism builds momentum.

E3thos was launched in 2016. What’s the program’s origin story?

At the time, we were about ten years old and reflecting on the legacy we wanted to build going forward. From inception, we had always been committed to our local communities through volunteerism, pro bono work and financial donations, but our efforts were pretty ad hoc, and our impact was limited. To make the kind of mark I knew we were capable of, we recognized the need to build a strong culture of corporate social responsibility, philanthropy and volunteerism. To do this right, we engaged a CSR expert to help us design a formal program that was an authentic extension of our core values and competencies. Through this process, E3thos — our shared commitment to building a mindful business and moral GPS — was born. 

Inspired by the 1–1–1 movement created by Salesforce.com, through E3thos, Mission North pledges 2% of our profits, 2% of our time, and 2% of our partner equity to support nonprofits in our local markets of San Francisco, New York and Portland, OR. As one of many agencies serving the $4.8 trillion technology market, we recognized then as we do now, that there is power in numbers. Our goal was to offer a framework that other firms could easily model.

Can you explain how the decision to focus on three key pillars — equity, empowerment and environment — came about?

Our decision was both top-down and bottom-up. These three issues were really important to Mission North’s partners, but we also surveyed all employees in the development phase of E3thos to understand the causes that they cared about most. Our focus on equity, [educational] empowerment and the environment was a manifestation of that process. 

Prioritizing purpose over profit has allowed us to hire and retain the best people in our industry, and has also played a powerful role in attracting world class clients who share our ethos.

The bottom-up component was critical because in order for the program to be successful, employee engagement needs to be high. By designing a program that supported critical issues they cared about, we’ve been able to make a much bigger impact, both within our organization and for our communities. 

Outside of the dollars, volunteer hours and pro bono work committed through this program, what has been the greatest impact of E3thos on Mission North as an organization?

Reputation, reputation, reputation. We do this first and foremost because it’s the right thing to do. Our financial investment is very meaningful, approximately 2-3% of our profit margins annually when factoring in our monetary donations and pro bono services. Prioritizing purpose over profit has allowed us to hire and retain the best people in our industry, and has also played a powerful role in attracting world class clients who share our ethos. Net/net, we are a much more successful business as a result. 

How has the program evolved since it started, and why?

We audit and iterate the program every year with an eye on driving up employee engagement and expanding our impact. But structurally, the program has remained pretty much the same, guided by three core pillars:

  • 2% commitment of our profits through employee-directed quarterly grants.
  • 2% commitment of our time via an ongoing pro-bono client relationship and special projects. Today, we work with Technovation and the Fintech Equality Coalition, and previously have partnered with Code2040, VentilatorSOS and other organizations. 
  • At least 2% commitment of partner equity to causes focused on social equity and sustainability. 
For other employers looking to stand up similar initiatives, what advice would you share?

For those earlier-stage startups or agencies considering if the time is right, it’s never too early to start. To build an authentic culture of corporate philanthropy, the work really needs to start before you get too big. Once you’ve made the jump, design a model that is perpetual rather than ad hoc, and pledge resources to support your efforts, even if the only thing you can afford to commit is time. If in need of inspiration, there are many great publicly available models that can be tailored to your company’s specific needs and resources, like Pledge 1%.   

Ad hoc, reactive corporate platitudes, albeit well intentioned, won’t fly anymore.

Over the years, we’ve also learned that to be successful requires a program that encourages participation at every level. This entails identifying an executive sponsor who is actively involved and accountable for outcomes, and a diverse team of people at all levels within the organization responsible for steering the work. Like any successful program, documenting your efforts, benchmarking results and building on your impact over time is key. 

Finally, formalize internal communications around your program to build a strong pride of association with your people, and don’t underestimate the value of sharing your contributions externally in helping to grow your community of like-minded talent, clients and peers.

We’ve seen brands being called out for both their words and their silence, action and inaction in response to racial justice, social inequity and climate change. How can brands looking to give back meet the moment?

Corporate behavior (not communications) drives reputation. Speaking up on any issue should be a direct expression of your actions, and brands need to ensure that all communications or gestures are underpinned by meaningful, actionable and measurable plans that persist long after public discourse has quietened down. Ad hoc, reactive corporate platitudes, albeit well intentioned, won’t fly anymore. To meet the moment for employees, clients and other stakeholders, there is no escaping the underlying work.