"Where our communities do well, we do well...this is incredibly important and powerful. It will outlast all of us and will be our legacy."
By Carol Cone, Global Practice Chair, Edelman Business + Social Purpose
In the earliest days of PNC Grow Up Great—then a $100 million, decade-long early childhood education program focused on underserved children—skepticism was great. Why was a bank supporting early childhood education? And what was early childhood education (or school readiness as some educators called it) to begin with?
In 2003, PNC’s former CEO Jim Rohr asked a simple question: could the bank focus its philanthropy for greater impact? And if it could, what social issue should it focus on?
PNC had numerous questions and along with my colleague Kristian Darigan Merenda, I had the honor of guiding the company’s journey toward a solution. Feedback from PNC employees made it clear that there was a strong desire to help children through the company’s philanthropy efforts. After significant research, we identified the emerging issue of early learning as a unique focus area for the company. With great “institutional will” and an engaged executive team, PNC Grow Up Great was born.
The early days were exciting. PNC teamed up with the National Head Start Association, Sesame Workshop, the Fred Rodgers Center and a stellar advisory council of luminaries in the early childhood education field who helped PNC shine a large focus on this misunderstood and largely unknown social issue. In 2003, PNC was the nation’s 12th largest bank and employed 25,000 people. Today, it is the 8th largest bank by assets and more than 50,000 employees. As PNC grew, Grow Up Great became a key element of its expansion, culture and success.
Today, PNC is known for its pioneering $350 million, multi-year program in early childhood education. In the last year or so, thanks to the combined efforts of various cross-sector initiatives including Grow Up Great, the issue itself has gained significant momentum.
Shifting the Landscape on Early Education
Quality pre-K is now recognized as a critical foundation to a child’s future success, reflected in recent federal and state legislation. A week before Grow Up Great’s 10th anniversary celebration, newly crowned New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $300 million budget allocation to create full-day pre-K for every child in New York City.
At PNC’s recent 10th anniversary celebration event in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed his commitment to early childhood education. Daily headlines and op-ed commentaries in national and regional media highlight the importance of early education—reporting on the strong link between quality preschool and future success, the ever-growing opportunity gap for children from non-affluent households and the critical importance of early vocabulary skills.
Sustaining Impact: 10 Lessons
So, how did PNC maximize Grow Up Great’s impact on both society and its business, and sustain the program for 10 years? Having partnering with PNC for 10 years, here are some lessons:
1. Utilize research: Primary and secondary research that engages core stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, consumers, communities and issue experts – can enable companies to find a social issue where financial and human capital investments can make a sustained impact on both the business and society.
2. Be courageous: While we originally suggested a $50 million, five year commitment, PNC declared a $100 million, 10-year program. Once they reached that goal (because of growth and acquisitions in year eight), they declared an additional $250 million program extension to support the initiative.
3. Seek expert advice: Realize that you‘re not the issue experts. Find the best ones and partner with them. PNC readily embraced a long-term commitment to an advisory council of early childhood experts to provide ongoing guidance into the issue and critical areas for impact.
4. Foster relationships: Investing in regular meetings, calls and celebrations with partners and maintaining active dialogue pays off beyond anyone’s vision. Sesame Workshop, while at first uncertain about how to partner with the bank, now almost a decade later, created, “Buzz Word,” a new Muppet to support its partnership with PNC on its newest program focusing on early vocabulary.
5. Start with strong leadership: Pick the best team of senior players to lead the charge. To have the biggest impact, embed the issue across the enterprise. PNC selected Eva Blum, then the company’s director of Community Affairs and chairwoman of the PNC Foundation, and empowered her to pick her team. She selected her “A” team from across the enterprise (corporate communications, marketing, HR, measurement, finance) constantly engaging them in program planning, evolution, measurement, presentations and milestone events.
6. Engage employees: PNC made an audacious commitment to employee engagement by pledging 40 hours of paid time off per employee annually to support Grow Up Great. Over the past 10 years, PNC employees have volunteered more than 410,000 hours at early childhood education centers, donated more than 610,000 items for classroom use and earned more than $1.6 million in matching funds for the centers where they volunteer.
7. Look at obstacles with optimism: When PNC learned it was mandatory for employees to have TB tests and background checks to gain clearance to volunteer with young children, they created a comprehensive system to help employees through the process.
8. Be relevant: Going into their second decade as partners, PNC and Sesame Workshop constantly evolve their programming and resources to keep the content relevant and fresh. To-date five comprehensive learning kits have been developed focusing on early learning, math, financial literacy and now vocabulary.
9. Focus on customization: Utilize the program focus to ignite local customization and partnerships. As the program matured, PNC utilized its grantmaking to inspire new local connections. For example, in Chicago, its grantmaking asked the city’s four major science institutions – Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry and Shedd Aquarium – to work together to enhance early science education.
10. Commit to measurement: Identify the key social and business metrics and track them. PNC gauged engagement and commitment via annual surveys and found that employees who answered that they are proud that PNC supports Grow Up Great were 10 times more likely to be engaged employees. Grow Up Great also provided a powerful platform for significant business introductions as the bank entered new communities.
But at the core of lessons learned from 10 years of growing up great are two things: focus and evolution.
From the very beginning former CEO Jim Rohr set a true north for the initiative’s relentless focus on the children. And once the initiative was launched, Eva Blum, Foundation President kept asking, “What is next?”
Today, PNC continues to build on these lessons as the company embarks on its latest round of programs—a $19 million, multi-year vocabulary initiative including pilots in 10 cities, longitudinal research with the Thirty Million Words Initiative and new “Words Are Here, There, and Everywhere” programming with Sesame Workshop.
Reflecting back on the decade, the pride of all associated with PNC is palpable: Grow Up Great has touched more than two million children, assisted 137,000 teachers with professional development and created dynamic, public -private local partnerships with arts and science museums and learning centers across the country.
PNC CEO Bill Demchak sums it up:
“Where our communities do well, we do well. Grow Up Great reflects the passions of our employees who give their time and talent; it touches our customers and fills an important gap in our nation’s education. This is incredibly important and powerful. It will outlast all of us and will be our legacy.”