An Affinity for Philanthropy

The practice of large corporations using employee resource groups, also known as affinity groups, to penetrate ethnic markets is nothing new. Besides providing a framework of social support within the company around race, gender, or any number of social constituencies, multinational companies are well aware of how these groups affect the bottom line.

More recently affinity groups are asking their employers to return that favor by investing in the communities that they represent.

“The resource group offers not only internal support for the companies, but they provide that linkage to the external community where most philanthropy is targeted,” says William Wells, owner of W. Wells & Associates L.L.C. and the national chair of the National Black MBA Association.

For example, this week the General Electric Foundation launched Developing Health, a three-year, $25 million aid program which aims to increase access to primary care at underserved health centers in the United States by providing GE Foundation grants and employee volunteers. This philanthropic effort is spearheaded by GE’s corporate diversity council, which is comprised of several affinity groups and employee networks.

“We feel strongly that the access to quality healthcare is an issue that affects our community disproportionately,” says Deborah Elam, vice president and chief diversity officer at GE. “This is a way that enables us to help that issue by working with community health centers that are really on the frontline.”

Four health centers in New York City will share a $1 million grant. The program will be tested and expanded into other cities that have large GE employee populations.

“It’s coming at a great time,” says Ulysses Kilgore III, president of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Health Center in Brooklyn, New York, which saw 61,000 patient visits last year. He plans to use the money to treat patients with chronic diseases by stressing good nutrition and exercise through healthy cooking and dance classes.

Developing Health is an offshoot of the Developing Health Globally program, which was launched in 2004 by the African American affinity group to help improve healthcare delivery at hospitals in Ghana.

Wells also credits work done by General Mill’s employee network, the Black Champions, which created Feeding Dreams, a program that awards money and recognition to volunteers in African American communities. Though on a smaller scale then GE, the Black Champions is also an example of how companies can extend their reach beyond just selling products and services, make a better connection to those who they are trying to serve, and provide fulfilling experiences for employees.