Cara Nichols Lessons in Creating Corporate Philanthropy Programs

Lessons in Creating Corporate Philanthropy Programs

Hear how the Rackspace Foundation built bridges with the local community to create meaningful change.

In 2009, the Rackspace Foundation began as a small grassroots project focused on building community gardens and painting murals. Since then, it has grown to become a model of corporate philanthropy with a diverse portfolio of projects that have had a visibly positive impact on the community surrounding the Rackspace Technology® headquarters in San Antonio, Texas.

We invited Cara Nichols, Founder of threefolded, author of  “The New Corporate Citizen” and former President of the Rackspace Foundation, to chat with technology evangelist and Cloud Talk podcast host Jeff DeVerter about corporate philanthropy.

Tune in to hear how:

  • Research by Trinity University shaped the Rackspace Technology programs
  • Employee-led funding initiatives enabled direct community investment
  • Local businesses partnered with The Rackspace Foundation to help local schools
  • A creative writing program, mentorship schemes and educational camps created positive changes in the community

“The Rackspace Foundation started very humbly and has grown to have a very rich portfolio of programs,” said Nichols. “It began when we moved into our headquarters, known as The Castle, in San Antonio. We reached out to the community to ask how we could be good neighbors. A local school asked us to build a community garden, and then we were asked to paint a mural. But we wanted to do more and be a lever in the community.”

The idea for the Rackspace Foundation is closely linked to the growth of Rackspace Technology. “There had been plans to build a wall around The Castle to make Rackers feel safe,” said Nichols. “The cost was estimated at about $1 million dollars. When Graham Weston, Founder of Rackspace Technology, heard this figure, he said, ‘We’re a company that doesn’t build walls but builds bridges. And as we succeed, we’re going to bring this community up with us.’ We wanted to be true citizens of this neighborhood.”[CS1] 

The intentions of the foundation were not clear to the local community. “There was skepticism,” explained Nichols. “The local schools were happy to come along for the ride, but there was a feeling of caution. There are many times when founders come in to deliver a program, but it doesn’t really serve the community. And I feel the schools were on the lookout for this.”

Nichols shared the key to the success of the Rackspace Foundation. “What I found was that when you go in with an open heart, mind and ears, you can build anything,” she said. “You need to listen to the homeowners, renters, parents and the kids of the community. Find out what they need, and help plug those gaps.”

One inspirational story that’s covered in both the discussion and Nichol’s book tells of how a Racker named Grant provided mentorship to Quentin, a member of the local community.

“Grant’s mentorship began during Quentin’s school days and continues today,” shared Nichols. “Quentin didn’t want to be trapped by his circumstances. He was shouldering burdensome problems that were more than any child should be expected to carry. But through Quentin’s perseverance, along with Grant’s mentorship, Quentin developed self-belief and went onto graduate from college. Grant serves a huge role in Quentin’s life.”

Nichols explained how the Rackspace Foundation provided a much-needed translation service for the community. “An informal conversation about language barriers at a school led to a translation service being developed,” said Nichols. “It wasn’t something that a nonprofit would necessarily think to write a grant request for. By uncovering those tiny opportunities, you can make a huge impact, and we did this repeatedly through our partnership with the schools.”

The translation service involved Rackers acting as interpreters for newly arrived families who did not speak English as a first language. “There were Rackers saying that they could relate to the refugees,” said Nichols. “They understood what it felt like to be new to the country. Rackers were more than happy provide language translation during parent teacher conferences and made sure things were culturally appropriate.”

Nichols concluded by explaining why the Rackspace Foundation is a success. “You have to be prepared for corporate seasons and the tides of change. The Rackspace Foundation model works so well because it is being funded by employees, which insulates it from corporate change. It’s not a line item in someone’s budget.

“It’s important to build diversity — not only into your portfolio of philanthropy projects, but also into how you execute them,” Nichols added. “This helps insulate against changes and gives you the ability to pivot. You have to be able to keep pivoting.”

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Rackspace Technology Staff - Solve

The Solve team is made up of a curator team, an editorial team and various technology experts as contributors. The curator team: Srini Koushik, CTO, Rackspace Technology Jeff DeVerter, Chief Technology Evangelist, Rackspace Technology The editorial team:  Gracie LePere, Program Manager Royce Stewart, Chief Designer  Simon Andolina, Design Tim Mann, Design Abi Watson, Design Debbie Talley, Production Manager  Chris Barlow, Editor  Tim Hennessey Jr., Writer Stuart Wade, Writer Karen Taylor, Writer Meagan Fleming, Social Media Specialist Daniel Gibson, Project Manager

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