Lilly Endowment CEO: Businesses key in virtuous circle of community prosperity

The CEO of Indianapolis-based philanthropic powerhouse Lilly Endowment Inc. wants to live in a humane and innovative community, where everyone feels welcomed and has an opportunity to flourish.

That means a community with good health care options, low crime rates, affordable housing, mass transportation, parks and recreation, arts and culture organizations, religious groups, and a variety of restaurants and entertainment venues.

And he knows philanthropic organizations can’t build that type of community alone.

robbins-clay-mugN. Clay Robbins

“Businesses play a huge role in creating and sustaining a virtuous circle of community prosperity,” N. Clay Robbins said Friday morning at the Engage Indiana event at the JW Marriott, co-hosted by IBJ and the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

Also president and chairman of Lilly Endowment, Robbins discussed corporate social responsibility and shared his observations on what business leaders are doing well and what they could do better.

Robbins first suggested that community leaders balance their heads and hearts when making philanthropic decisions. For example, when disasters like hurricanes hit, many people send items like food or clothing, believing they are doing their part to help.

“Without a doubt, they are well-meaning,” Robbins said. “However, in most cases, the most effective way to help is to give cash.”

He also encouraged companies to think about the long-term impact of their efforts and to coordinate a day of giving or volunteering with an organization that can continue the work.

For example, when businesses plant trees or bushes, the landscape looks nice for a few months. But within a year, the plants could die without an ongoing maintenance plan.

“The impact is often not long-lasting or significant, unless there is an organizational infrastructure that supports the activity,” Robbins said, also suggesting companies could coordinate with arboreal-focused not-for-profit Keep Indianapolis Beautiful.

Robbins acknowledged that teaching children about philanthropy can be a difficult task—even admitting he struggled with one his three sons who refused to pick up litter around a school during a volunteer event when he was 5 years old. But parent should persevere, he said.

“These early setbacks can be overcome,” Robbins said.

Robbins also recommended that companies start programs that match philanthropic donations by their employees. Such programs can inspire employee morale and loyalty. And if a company wants its program to be more successful, it should offer educational sessions about how to determine whether a not-for-profit is well-run, so employees can make better decisions about where to donate.

Lilly Endowment is one of the largest grant-making foundations in the United States, and concentrates its giving to the causes of community development, education and religion. Over the course of 2016, the endowment paid grants totaling $452.8 million, the majority of which were issued to Indiana-based organizations.

One area of concern for Robbins is the trend of so-called "strategic corporate philanthropy," in which businesses target their efforts in ways that can in turn benefit their own companies.

“I would certainly be in favor of a financial services firm focusing some of its philanthropy on financial literacy programs,” Robbins said. “I’m merely encouraging businesses to consider broader community needs as well.”

Attendees also heard from five panelists on what Indianapolis is doing well in its philanthropic efforts and charitable giving and areas where the city could improve, like engaging millennials more effectively and continuing to build partnerships.

The panel included Vicki Bohlsen, founder and president of Bohlsen Group; Stephanie Pemberton, senior director of marketing for the Indianapolis Colts; Allison Melangton, senior vice president of events for Hulman Motorsports Properties and former CEO of the 2012 Indianapolis Super Bowl Host Committee; Adrianne Slash, diversity and inclusion specialist at Community Health Network; and Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana.

“The culture and fabric that we have here [in Indianapolis] is very different,” Melangton said of residents' bent toward volunteerism and supporting large-scale civic events. “Collaborative agendas and partnerships are critically important as we go forward.”

In addition to the panel discussion, the Engage Indiana event also honored Emmis Communications Corp. founder and CEO Jeff Smulyan with IBJ's annual Michael A. Carroll Award. Smulyan has supported a wide range of causes and organizations over the years, from education initiatives to animal welfare. He’s also known for standing outside the Emmis headquarters on Monument Circle every holiday season, ringing a bell to collect donations for the Salvation Army kettle.

The Michael A. Carroll Award is given annually to a man or woman who has demonstrated the former deputy mayor’s qualities of determination, humility and service. Carroll was among six people killed when two small planes collided over southern Marion County on Sept. 11, 1992.

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