Almost four years ago, in response to the advent of more competition in the local telecoms business, AT&T decided that a campaign to become a more ‘local’ company was imperative. For the AT&T Foundation, this meant a dramatic shift towards local grantmaking. But first AT&T wanted to better understand what it really means to be local.
To this end, the AT&T Public Relations Research Group designed a study to answer key questions about the concept of ‘localness’ and to determine to what extent localness affects buying decisions at the local level.
At the same time, a review of AT&T Foundation grantmaking showed that roughly 75 per cent of all grants were headquarters driven, with only about 25 per cent being made because of locally driven priorities – a situation that had to change.
Following a survey of 4,403 key community and business leaders in 22 local markets, AT&T concluded that localness is what Director Tim McClimon describes as ‘the combined rational and emotional assessment of a company’s tangible participation in the life of a community and how the community feels about that involvement’. Philanthropy and employee volunteerism were identified as crucial signs of a company’s localness.
It also emerged that a community’s perception of a company’s localness has a significant dollar impact on buying decisions among consumers and small businesses, but less of an impact on the buying decisions of larger businesses.
Armed with this information, the AT&T Foundation team set about changing the balance of its grantmaking – which has now come full circle to be only 25 per cent headquarters-driven and 75 per cent locally driven.
In order to accomplish this, a significant amount of staff time needed to be spent training local AT&T employees to manage philanthropy in their communities. ‘AT&T Foundation programme managers needed to make a shift from being primarily decision-makers to being primarily counsellors,’ McClimon explains, ‘and philosophically we needed to shift from being focused to being more flexible. What was right for one community was not necessarily right for another.
‘What we’ve gained is increased ownership of our philanthropy at the local level and an increased perception in many communities that AT&T is a local player. What’s been sacrificed is the commonly held belief that a corporation’s philanthropy must be focused at the national or global level to be effective. Research and benchmarking have helped guide us along the way.’