After spending 15 years working for the big names in the telecommunications industry, a trip to Africa was the push Renee Bowker needed to follow her social entrepreneurial dreams.
In the 18 months since Bowker launched a charitable foundation specifically for telco employees, Telco Together has already resulted in more than $400,000 in donations to an array of charities.
“I have a heavy background in marketing and product development in the telco space, but had always wanted to get involved with the community side of things, and really wanted to give something back. With jobs like that it’s very difficult to find the time though. Then two years ago I was given the opportunity to go and do some volunteer work at an orphanage rural Kenya, which was just a phenomenal, eye-opening experience,” Bowker says.
“I came back from that trip with a bee in my bonnet about wanting to leave the corporate world. So when I got back I resigned two days later.”
At the time of her resignation, Bowker didn’t know exactly what her next move was going to be. However following conversations with her former boss, and now Foundation Chairman Vaughan Bowen, about corporate community engagement in the telco space, they soon uncovered the opportunity lying in wait.
“We started talking about how some other industries like banking and mining have quite a good network for community engagement and corporate social responsibility. And in comparison, the telco industry hadn’t really got to the point where there was any collaboration or network [for community engagement] across the industry. While organisations like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone all individually have quite strong social strategies, there was a real opportunity to take up something together.”
“So out of all of that, I decided to start the Telco Together foundation, which was quite challenging as I was starting an industry foundation without it actually being driven by the industry. So that’s been one of the many challenges,” Bowker says.
Driven by Bowker, the foundation works by appealing to employees in the telco industry as a whole, to participate in fundraising and networking opportunities with their peers.
Telco Together also works with organisations to get their staff more engaged in community initiatives. “A lot of our member organisations actually have volunteer days on offer for their staff, but they often don’t take them up on it. So that’s one of the things we’re working on – to make volunteering opportunities a little more accessible.”
In terms of raising funds, Telco Together organises events like its recent hike of Mt Kilimanjaro, which involved employees from across the industry in a group fundraising effort. This event alone raised some $160,000.
“The good thing is that because these are Telco specific events, they know they’ll be doing something with their colleagues from different companies. And that seems to have really hit the mark, because people in this industry really love networking. So we’re creating networking opportunities that have a community focus, and the fundraising element as well.”
In deciding which charities to support, Bowker found many corporate foundations donated strongly in the youth and medical research sectors. For this reason, Telco Together has aligned with the disadvantaged community space in particular.
“Currently we have four community partners and we selected those through a strong due diligence process, and looking closely at the transparency of their financials, their focus on community impact and their governance. We make sure the way they’re distributing their money, and how they’re measuring the impact of spending that money, is completely above board, and the best in their area of expertise,” Bowker says.
When it comes to dispatching the funds to charitable organisations, Bowker’s aim is to make the process as straightforward as possible.
“Currently we don’t have a grant process, we just split the money that we raise equally between those four partners that we support. We don’t go through the process of asking charities to submit proposals, instead we go searching for the charities that are doing really good work, and have really good processes in place, and just say well you keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll give you a quarter of the money that we raise. And from a fund raising perspective, that’s worked really well for people to see where their money is actually going.”
With over $400,000 raised in 18 months, already the foundation is proving to be filling an important gap in the corporate giving space.
“We expect that to grow exponentially, because the first twelve months we were building awareness as well as actually getting people onboard the fundraising bandwagon. So I’m pretty happy with that as our first 18 months actually. The Mt Kilimanjaro trip was just a fantastic demonstration of the power of when people get behind fundraising activities, and peer-to-peer fundraising as well.”