Since it was founded in 2001, the Western Union Foundation has awarded nearly $53 million to help individuals and families around the globe. Two years ago, the foundation launched the Our World, Our Family initiative to address the needs of migrants and their communities as well as the root causes of poverty worldwide. In 2008, the effort was recognized with an Excellence Award from the Committee for Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.
PND recently sat down with Luella Chavez D'Angelo, who has headed the foundation since its inception, to discuss the Our World, Our Family initiative, the foundation's efforts to provide long-term disaster relief, and the importance of employee involvement in corporate philanthropic activities.
Philanthropy News Digest: In 2007, your foundation launched a five-year, $50 million initiative to promote economic opportunities for migrants and their families in the United States and abroad. What are the major barriers to migrants' economic success, and how is the initiative addressing those barriers?
Luella Chavez D'Angelo: Most of the challenges to migrant success are issues of integration. When a migrant lands in a new country she faces many challenges, including access to education and health care, economic mobility, and basic things we take for granted, like being treated equally by other members of society.
To help address those issues, the Our World, Our Family initiative has been supporting nonprofits and programs working in the area of job skills and language acquisition so that migrants can have a real dialogue with their employers and neighbors — the people they meet in the grocery store or at church — and help build a more vibrant community. We focus on language programs geared toward adults for two reasons: because the majority of migrants are adults; and because adults have more difficulty learning a new language than children.
Another component of the initiative is social integration. We seek out programs that support diverse cultures among individuals who have just migrated to a country and those who are already in that country.
PND: The foundation recently partnered with USAID on a program to provide support for the African diaspora in the United States. What are the goals for the program?
LCD: The main goal of the African Diaspora Marketplace is to foster partnerships between individuals in the diaspora community living in the United States and their cohorts back in sub-Saharan Africa to create businesses — and therefore jobs — in Africa and boost economic opportunities for individuals on both continents. It's a very collaborative initiative: USAID, the Western Union Foundation, and various organizations are all contributing financial resources. And then we have Western Union agents — who are not employees of the company but independent contractors — donating money through our Agent Giving Circle program. Agents are highly entrepreneurial and we match their donations one-for-one, which helps strengthen our business partnerships as well as the communities we serve. We really tried to leverage a lot of sources of funding and business assistance for the effort to create as many opportunities as possible.
PND: The foundation has stated that migrants have been underserved by traditional philanthropy. Do you see any signs that this could be changing?
LCD: In the past, many people simply didn't understand the issues faced by migrants. When we were putting the program together in 2005 and 2006, we tested the waters looking for partners and, to be honest, not a lot of groups wanted to partner with us — I think because the issue was just seen as too new or too risky.
Now, however, more people are beginning to understand that migration is a phenomenon that is as old as humanity itself, that it is happening today despite the economy, and that migrants and immigrants have bestowed many positive benefits on the United States and other countries around the world. Migrants play an important role in the economies of their host countries, and also send a financial lifeline home to their families in developing countries, which is of interest to philanthropists. In particular, I'm seeing more of my colleagues at corporate foundations learning about diaspora communities and migrant issues, and overall I'm seeing more opportunities to collaborate with other foundations on these kinds of efforts.
PND: The foundation has also focused its attention on disaster relief. What have you learned about the nature of emergency relief from natural disasters such as Hurricane Noel in the Dominican Republic and the 2007 flood that ravaged Tabasco, Mexico?
LCD: One of the most important things we've learned over the past three years is that, when a major disaster happens, there tends to be an influx of emergency relief funds from many different funding sources. At the same time, we've noticed that less focus is placed on funding long-term rebuilding efforts in the months and years after the initial disaster. So we've adjusted our grantmaking over the years to try and fill that hole.
PND: Western Union's corporate philanthropy includes a strong focus on employee involvement through matching gift and employee volunteer efforts. Why is employee participation important to the company and foundation?
LCD: Perhaps the most important reason is because it's important to our employees themselves. People take great pride in working for a company that's working to make a difference in people's lives, so our philanthropic efforts have helped us attract and retain talented employees. In fact, we've seen an increasing number of college grads coming up to us at job fairs to ask our recruiters specifically about our corporate responsibility programs — at some events, it's the number-one question applicants ask us. Bright young people are really interested in working for companies that are socially responsible these days, so we see corporate citizenship as an important business strategy as well as a way to support the communities where we live and work.
— Lauren Kelley