Cisco’s Katherine Toch shares how she and their team are developing successful partnerships to help them impact one-billion people by 2025

Katherine Toch, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Marketing, has been part of CSR efforts at Cisco for nearly 20 years — or, as she says, since before CSR was even born.

Even then, she said their approach to CSR has been grounded in the mentality that they’re part of a community, so they should focus on what they can do to better that community.

“We take the longer term approach,” she said. “We’re looking for sustainable, scalable, replicable solutions. People think if you just write a check and have a couple of meetings then everything will come together, but that’s not necessarily the case.”

And it’s that mentality that has led Cisco to develop its next big long-term goal — positively impacting one-billion people through digital solutions by 2025.

When looking at a goal like that, Katherine was clear that they don’t just want a number, they want to know they’re having that impact on individual lives and communities.

We worked to both bring Cisco's expertise to the table, as well as have Mercy Corps educate us on what's going on out there. Katherine Toch
According to Katherine, a big part of that is partnering. “We know how to work with other organizations that have an expertise in another area, and bring our expertise into the fold to amplify our impact,” she said. “And we know the best of what we bring to the table as well, the innovation, technology, and experience.”

Examples of their measurable impact include the number of people who receive access to clean drinking water, who obtain jobs or increased income, or who reach proficiency in a valuable STEM subject.

While the one billion initiative officially launched in late 2016, it stemmed from work they’d been doing over the past several years.

At Cisco, Katherine said they’d been partnering with nonprofits all over the world and since 2008 with a focus on three key areas: education, economic empowerment, and critical human needs.

While they narrowed their focus to these three areas, Katherine said it’s still a very large bucket of partners to pick from.

“Picking our nonprofit partners isn’t easy,” she said. “But once we’ve picked a partner, we often work with them for several years, helping them develop their solutions from idea to validation to scale.”

When choosing and working with those partners, Katherine said they go in almost as investors in the nonprofit.

Once our partnership is coming to a close, we transition it, almost like they graduated, and by that point they're getting more funding from other sources, or are sustainable in some other fashion such as through earned income. Katherine Toch
“We invest in early stage solutions that use technology to address social challenges, and at least 65 percent of the people served with the solution must be from underserved communities,” she said. “But we also commit to co-creating and supporting the solution with them because, at the end of the day, you get a bigger bang for your buck when you’re creating this vision together. Most companies today won’t fund something like that because it’s too uncertain.”

She said through this method, they can play the biggest, most impactful role by being there in the beginning.

Once they’ve established a partnership, a Cisco portfolio manager makes sure they have the technological support they need and can measure their results.

“Our portfolio managers come from or have deep knowledge of the nonprofit world, so they have expertise in their issue focus areas,” said Katherine. “They can also bring in technology folks from across Cisco who can provide expertise if needed. Then it goes to validation, where it starts to get tested in different areas, whether that’s a certain geography or a certain group of people, before it goes to scale.”

Then, they continue growing their impact with their partners to be able to serve more people by replicating or expanding the scope of their work — all while continuing to ideate and measure for impact.

“Once our partnership is coming to a close, we transition it, almost like they graduated, and by that point they’re getting more funding from other sources, or are sustainable in some other fashion such as through earned income,” said Katherine. “That allows us to go in and start again with a new partner.”

Katherine said the powerful numbers they were seeing through these partnerships were a big part of their decision to go after the one billion goal.

The one billion is made up of all these nonprofits that we work with, and we're trying to hit that goal early. Katherine Toch
“We take measurement and impact very seriously,” she said. “There’s a lot of backend work that goes into ensuring that the numbers and the commitment the nonprofit made are there and that the partnership is working.”

She said through their processes and data collection they were seeing positive results with the nonprofit partners they were working with, and they realized there may be others they could work with to make a big difference for a lot of people.

“We started thinking about how we could positively impact one billion people by 2025,” she said.

The team did vigorous research to see if they could do it and if it would be an achievable goal. And, according to Katherine, because of the excellent work their nonprofits were doing on the ground and the interest internally all the way up to CEO Chuck Robbins, they decided to go for it.

Recently, to increase their impact, the Cisco team started executing larger grants with Mercy Corps and Opportunity International in line with their “critical human needs” and “economic empowerment” pillars.

“Our critical human needs focus started to take a bigger place as Chuck took over,” said Katherine. “But also, with where we are in society right now, education and economic empowerment were always something we were investing in.”

Through their work with Mercy Corps, the Cisco team is focused on delivering humanitarian aid faster, more efficiently, and to more people, such as during refugee crises. They sat down with the Mercy Corps leaders and technology experts and worked out a five-year partnership, with a larger dollar commitment than their previous partnerships.

In the first year of their partnership, they have impacted one-million people in seven countries through 45 hotspots.

“We worked to both bring Cisco’s expertise to the table, as well as have Mercy Corps educate us on what’s going on out there,” said Katherine. “A lot of what we’re doing is building up Mercy Corps’ capabilities with technology and expertise so they can look at data and analyze things in a way that will make their programs more effective.”

Katherine says that means certain resources need to be available and prioritized for this audience.

A lot of what we’re doing is building up Mercy Corps' capabilities with technology and expertise so they can look at data and analyze things in a way that will make their programs more effective. Katherine Toch
“A lot of our security products are involved in this partnership,” she said. “Many of these refugee communities and nonprofits who work with them have been equipped with internet access. Through smartphones they’re able to get information and resources out to people as they search for safety, security, and a better life for their families.”

Given the sensitive nature of some of this information and Cisco’s hands-on approach to their nonprofit partnerships, she said there’s a lot they have to walk through together to have the impact they want and to make the partnership successful.

Despite their work with these larger partners, Katherine emphasized that for them to reach their goal, every one of their nonprofit partners represents a crucial component of their initiative and makes all the difference.

“The one billion is made up of all these nonprofits that we work with, and we’re trying to hit that goal early,” she said. This past year, they helped 209-million people, putting them at 445 million to date.

“If you look at our trajectory and what we hope to do, the numbers may shift a little bit here and there because sometimes things hit a plateau,” she said. “But we’ve done a lot of work to make sure we’re making a lasting impact.”

To ensure that lasting impact, Katherine said it’s all the more important that they do things the right way, not just the fast way.

She said they could always make a grant and get to that number quickly, but for them, that one billion is made up of individual people they want to be able to help.

“We want to be able to say with confidence that the work we’re doing had a significant impact on that individual,” she said. “They got a job because of it or got into housing because of it. They were able to move from one country to another and get their footing and get started somewhere. These numbers are not trivial. They’re not a quick touch. We want to know that we’ve reached that many people in an impactful way.”

She also emphasized the importance of being prepared to communicate the parameters of your goals to stakeholders and potentially bring in new partners or collaborators as your work demands it.

For anyone looking to impact their audiences, Katherine said it’s all about finding the right partners.

“Develop strong partnerships, and seek out partners who are already committed to the same goals, with the same commitment to measurable impact,” she said. “And make sure that your measurement criteria is clearly defined and rigorously tracked.”

Katherine Toch has been a member of the CSR Board since 2019. You can follow her on LinkedIn.