While the dizzying array of assets that AOL-Time Warner share are easily recognized by businessmen and consumers alike, the company’s commitment to social causes is probably less familiar.
But make no mistake about it; this new media empire isn’t your usual large capitalist conglomerate. While other multi-million dollar companies have held their purse-strings tight, CEO Gerald Levin and Chairman of the Board Steven Case are happy to spread the wealth by actively partnering with charities and organizations and drumming up support amongst their staff for community volunteerism.
The social mission and work of the company is entrusted into the very capable hands of Kathy Bushkin. As president of AOL Time Warner's Foundation and a Senior Vice President of AOL Time Warner, Kathy is perhaps one of the most influential humanitarians in America today. Her work and influence are felt nationwide, “a perk,” she says, “no other job can match.”
While her heart for giving was born long before she entered the workforce, Kathy’s skill for identifying social causes was developed while serving as press secretary for Senator Gary Hart. She worked with Hart from 1976-1984, and she was there through his presidential campaign in the year of Yuppies and New Democrats. The experience, she says, helped her to learn about the country in a whole new way: She was addressing social causes of the day, honing her influence around the country, and most dear to her, working on something “significant.” It was also during this time when she met the future founder of Share our Strength, Bill Shore, who later convinced her to sit on the board of the prestigious hunger and health organization.
By 1985, Kathy moved off Washington Hill but even her next full-time job didn’t keep her away from the social issues that she felt most passionate about. She enrolled her time in several non-profits, serving on the board for Share Our Strength and the National Press Foundation. She also was a formidable player in the creation of the International Women’s Media Foundation. The organization grew out of a one-time event whose purpose was to bring women journalists together after the Berlin Wall came down in 1990. But its success demanded an ongoing foundation that would encourage the very American idea of networking amongst European women in the media.
Besides the triumphs in her philanthropic work, Kathy was also receiving high marks of achievement at “US News & World Report.” As editorial administrator of the popular newsweekly, Kathy was overseeing the logistics of everything from budgets to policies. In fact, it was her policy work on emerging technology issues that first plunged Kathy into exploring the nascent world of the Web. Convinced that there were uncharted opportunities in the burgeoning virtual space, she helped the magazine create an online presence early in 1993 by partnering with CompuServe (AOL had already accepted Time magazine as a content provider). The concept of online journalism and interaction between readers and writers was indeed compelling and Kathy helped the magazine claim an even larger stake of the web by launching their own site in 1995.
It was Kathy’s involvement on the boards while maintaining a demanding job that showed her that it was possible to be involved in philanthropy while having a full-time career. When she was offered the job of AOL's chief communications officer, she jumped at the opportunity. Part of her role now included overseeing the AOL Foundation.
The job, she admits, was a perfect fit with her ideals and a rare chance for her to bring her dedication to social causes to a company whose commitment ran just as strong. The Foundation altruistic motives were the basis of the current AOLTW Foundation’s mission, striving to ensure the Internet medium focused on helping society, improving civic engagement and alleviating the digital divide.
“AOL built its business by creating partnerships with organizations that brought content and community to its members, so it was a natural step for the Foundation to operate in partnerships as well,” she says. “We also preferred partnering with other organizations to create programs that could effect change rather than just making grants and donations.”
One of the more dynamic projects Kathy was involved with was the creation of Helping.org, a philanthropy portal of more than 700,000 charities where users can check on facts about non-profits and make donations. The site, which was created in 1999, allows users to punch in their credit card numbers to advance cash to their favored charity, but the card companies still need to collect their 2% processing fee. As part of the partnership, The AOL Foundation agreed to cover the cost of all online fees, making the donations free to both donors and charities. Kathy also created other success stories for AOL with their involvement in the Digital Divide Network and their Digital Heroes e-mentoring initiative, a partnership that the company struck with the National Mentoring Partnership (mentoring.org).
While AOLTW is a relatively new entity, Kathy is quick to point out that both companies carry a strong legacy of commitment to social causes. “The fit between Gerry and Steve is good,” she says, “because they’ve always been involved with the bottom line– the REAL bottom line, not the numbers but social impacts of companies.”
The two heads have encouraged the newly formed Foundation to act as a unified part of the whole company, just like all the other corporate divisions. And Kathy’s latest assignment is to work with all those entities to see how each product in the AOLTW stable can work towards social goals. The challenge has led her to determine what might be obvious: “There are lots of powerful ways to bring attention to the issues of diversity, corporate responsibility and giving, kids and social issues,” with their combined properties.
Yet as apparent as that seems, many other well-known companies let their opportunity to spread good karma slip them by. Kathy is making sure that doesn’t happen. In fact, as the two sides were signing their nuptials in January, Kathy was instrumental in the discussion of the mission statement of the newly formed foundation. The overall gist, she says, is “to use the power of media, communications and information technology to serve the public interest and strengthen society.” From there, they focused more clearly on the actual objectives: equipping kids for the 21st century, extending Internet benefits to all, engaging communities in the arts and empowering citizens and civic participation.
All together, the Foundation has more than $10 million in assets not including in-kind giving, additional corporate contributions and division giving for social causes. Employees have their pick of more than 91 programs for participation. Some of the more popular ones include Ted Leonisis’s E-buddies, which models itself after a buddy program for retarded people, but via email. E-mentoring is also a popular choice among employees, since positive work can be accomplished via email. So far, she reports, about 20,000 hours per week are donated by employees to just one of their sponsor programs, Time to Read.
For employees not sure where to donate their time, the company created ECHO, Employees Caring and Helping Others, a site that provides information on volunteering opportunities in the local communities and offers a link for online donations.
Philanthropy and volunteerism online is one thing, but the off-line experience is where major impact is more noticeable. In an effort to improve the DC philanthropy scene, Kathy’s been visiting and investigating the more mature New York charity arena. She has found that DC-ers are picking up the knack quite well; “philanthropy has become a real bond for a lot of people who wouldn’t necessary come together, and the high tech sector, in particular, has been very responsive.” The issues that the technology industry has rallied around, she points out, address the digital divide, housing and education.