An Interview with Ken Weber, Executive Director of Zynga.org
|Zynga employees volunteer with Tipping Point grantee Year Up Bay Area, October 2012|Last year alone, Zynga employees donated over $18,000 to Tipping Point and its grantees. Beyond donations, Zynga employees aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get involved directly, as they’ve done recently with Tipping Point groups Year Up and Reading Partners. The company hosted an early Thanksgiving Dinner with the executive directors of Tipping Point grantees, and for Tipping Point’s year-end Grow Our Circle campaign, CEO Mark Pincus and his wife Ali gave a significant personal contribution, demonstrating Zynga’s commitment to the fight against poverty at the leadership level.
Here, Ken Weber, Executive Director of Zynga.org, takes Tipping Point through the history and significance of this phenomenal partnership.
TPC: Where does Zynga's value for being philanthropic come from?
KW: Zynga games represent a global community of more than 300 million players worldwide. We also have about 3,000 employees across 25 offices worldwide. As a result, we were able to generate fairly large and immediate philanthropic responses to events like the Haiti earthquake and Japan tsunami, driving more than $5 million in donations to nonprofits responding on the ground. Our players also contributed enough to build a new elementary school in Haiti, which is thriving today.
Through those initial efforts, we developed an appreciation for the power of our players, our network, and our employees to help others. You might say we felt a collective “helper’s high” and ever since we’ve been working to replicate that experience as an ongoing, or “evergreen” feature of our products and services. We wanted to go beyond just disaster response and to incorporate a compelling range of social issues into our games.
Locally, we are acutely aware of the needs of San Francisco families who have trouble making ends meet. Our founder and CEO, Mark Pincus, is a 16-year resident of San Francisco, and is passionate about the city. We have nearly 2,000 employees based at our headquarters at 8thand Townsend Street, many of whom are already donors and volunteers. We want to be more than “good corporate neighbors,” we want to be contributors to the betterment of the city and to helping those in need.
TPC: How did the partnership between Zynga and Tipping Point originally come about? What attracted Zynga to pursue an engaged partnership with Tipping Point?
KW: As a San Francisco-based company that made a very deliberate decision to stay in the city, we’ve always wanted to do more locally. We had a general awareness of the thriving ecosystem of community-based organizations working to address the needs of San Francisco residents, especially families and children. And we knew we could learn from other philanthropic companies who had been at this for longer than we had, like Salesforce.com and Google. But we also wanted to ensure our philanthropic investments in the community were aimed at results driven organizations with strong leadership and a proven track record.
That’s where Tipping Point came in. We knew there was someone out there who knew a lot more about this than we did. Someone who had a way to evaluate and identify the area’s highest performing organizations. Someone who had the time and expertise to do this work. As a small team within Zynga, we knew we didn’t have the bandwidth or the core competency to get it done. So we went looking for a partner who could show us the ropes, help us learn, and introduce our employees to exciting and innovative organizations doing the most effective work. We also knew Tipping Point had nearly 40 grantees, so it had a broad, yet focused portfolio of organizations, that would appeal to the varied interests of our employees.
TPC: What is Zynga.org's mission and how does Tipping Point factor in? Is the relationship with Tipping Point different from Zynga's partnerships with other non-profits? If so, what makes it unique?
KW: Zynga.org is focused on the idea that social games are a platform for social impact. To date, we have generated more than $15 million for nonprofit organizations through our games.
We are also responsible for inspiring the passion and generosity of our employees and for harnessing their capital and skills to have an impact in the real world, both through game design as well as through donating and volunteering.
The partnership with Tipping Point is unique in that it’s a hands-on relationship where we can be directly involved with organizations delivering programs and results in the community in which we work and live. Most of the other relationships we have with nonprofits are about increasing awareness among our players and driving individual donations through our games. The relationship with Tipping Point is focused locally and is geared towards our employees as an audience.
Another feature of our relationship with Tipping Point is that we are direct financial contributors. Zynga.org matches employee donations to nonprofits $1-1, but when it comes to giving to Tipping Point and Tipping Point supported organizations, the match is $2-1. What we’re saying is, giving to effective local organizations is just as important as giving to your alma mater, your children’s’ school, and your favorite “big brand” charity.
TPC: What effect, if any, do you think Zynga's philanthropy has on its employees? Is there a specific example that comes to mind when thinking about employees' contributions or volunteerism that illustrates higher job satisfaction, sense of connectivity to the community, etc.?
KW: We track this pretty closely, actually. We ask our employees quarterly how important it is for their company to be giving back and to what extent we are living up to that expectation. We know by tracking our employees’ participation in our employee giving and volunteering programs what the impact is. We set aggressive goals for both employee donations and volunteer time last year and exceeded both. In our first year of having formal employee engagement programs, more than 700 employees became donors and more than 700 volunteered. We also know that many are involved with community-based organizations on their own time.
Anecdotally, we hear all the time that people decided to come to Zynga because of its social impact programs. Or decided to stay. Or were just inspired to be here and excited to be involved.
There is lots of great data out there on the benefits to both employees and employers that social impact programs can have, from retention, to productivity, to a sense of belonging, even loyalty. We are interested in driving all of those things – for both altruistic and selfish reasons, to be honest – but we are more interested in the outcomes; in having impacts through hard work, creativity and innovation – and through partnerships with organizations like Tipping Point and its grantees.
We have an aversion – a kind of allergy – to CSR that “checks the box.” We want to be involved in thoughtful and strategic ways that are helpful to nonprofits now, but that also generate value for them over time.
TPC: Looking ahead, what do you anticipate the future of the partnership between Zynga and Tipping Point will look like?
KW: We would love to deepen it. We’d like to inspire more interest from our employees in Tipping Point and Tipping Point grantees and we’d like to increase participation – through giving and volunteering – in the work of Tipping Point-supported groups. Something we’re going to try this year is “Good Mornings,” where we invite some of our most involved employees to small breakfasts with Tipping Point leaders, to get a closer look at what they do. We’re also developing a special program for senior staff to help them to develop personalized giving strategies for the long term. We hope a number will include Tipping Point and Tipping Point grantees in their plans.
TPC: Anything else you’d like to add about this partnership and its impact on the community?
KW: We think we’ve come up with a good idea in partnering with Tipping Point and we’re hoping other companies will follow suit. We’re excited to be associated with, and working so closely with, a group that takes an analytical approach to making investments in the community and, ultimately, in families and kids. Our relationship with Tipping Point is by no means exclusive – we also work with other great Bay Area organizations – but we think it’s a great leg up and a great way to provide a valuable service to our employees.
Field Notes from the 2011 Transition Age Youth Funders Group Panel
By: Rebecca Cherin, Managing Director of Programs, Tipping Point Community
In San Francisco alone, there are 80,000 people between the ages 16 and 24 years old[i]. Most of these youth will move smoothly and successfully into adulthood by graduating from high school, landing jobs and finding safe homes, and by building lasting relationships with those around them. However, for the five to ten percent of young people at risk of long-term unemployment, homelessness or justice system involvement, this period of life is a particularly vulnerable one.
We can prevent poverty by intervening to offer critical support at this stage in a young person’s development. At Tipping Point Community, we have a two-pronged approach to finding, funding and partnering with programs that support young people to enter the workforce and pursue post-secondary education. First, we work with organizations like First Place for Youth, Larkin Street Youth Services and New Door Ventures, which have been in the community for over a decade and are trusted resources for working with current and former foster children, homeless young people and other youth in need.
We also look for groups that exist successfully in other places around the country and support their replication or expansion to the Bay Area. We began funding Year Up in this way; the organization grew from its first location in Boston to a thriving program here the Bay Area in 2008. And just this past November, an alternative education program called Gateway to College, which is originally from Portland, Oregon, became a Tipping Point grantee. Thanks to our partnership with Social Innovation Fund recipient, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, we will continue to look for opportunities to bring phenomenal models of support for young people to the Bay Area.
Once an organization becomes a part of our portfolio, we do as much as we can to add value and streamline services. Because Tipping Point works within a relatively small geography and has clusters of grantees in various cities around the Bay Area, we can bring grantees together to share information and make referrals. We’ve seen that youth-serving organizations in particular, some of which offer housing as their core program focus while others provide high-quality employment or education programs, benefit from this opportunity. We believe that all of these ingredients together are necessary to lift a young person out of poverty.
Finally, we work to respond to common needs that arise from across our portfolio. Through our Mental Health Initiative, for example, we have provided a series of grantee staff trainings on motivational interviewing, an evidenced-based technique for working with youth and adults who engage in self-sabotaging behaviors. In some cases, we are able to follow up on group trainings by supporting our expert trainers to go more in depth with specific grantee organizations, aiding in the use of these practices on the ground.
Prior to joining Tipping Point Community five years ago, Rebecca Cherin worked in program, development and management at San Francisco’s Larkin Street Youth Services. She helped design and implement an employment and education program for run-away, homeless and emancipated foster youth who faced mental health challenges, the pull of street economies, and a general distrust of adults.
[i] Disconnected Youth in San Francisco, Mayor’s Transitional Youth Taskforce, 2007 http://www.heysf.org/download/TYTF%20final%20report.pdf