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Corporations increasingly use scholarships to build lasting relationships

Many companies in Canada are starting scholarship programs with a view to promoting their corporate social responsibility.

By MATTHEW HALLIDAY | MAY 24 2019

Several years ago, Rogers Communications was looking to freshen up its approach to corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the combination of public outreach, philanthropic activities and community investments that’s de rigueur for private companies today. “There wasn’t much question where we would focus,” says Peter King, Rogers’ senior CSR director. “Education and scholarships are a tremendously worthwhile cause, and we have this great story of a founder who believed that an educated nation is a strong nation.”

Ted Rogers, the company’s founder and CEO until his death in 2008, was fond of referring to education as a “great equalizer.” But while Mr. Rogers himself may have been behind the telecom giant’s pivot to education, his company isn’t alone in this newfound focus.

There’s no hard data in Canada tracking sources of student aid, but those most familiar with the area believe that more funding is now coming from the private sector. Julia Scott, manager of Scholarship Partners Canada, a service of Universities Canada, says more companies are contacting her every year to investigate starting their own programs – in 2016, Rogers was one of them.

Chris Wilkins, CEO of EDge Interactive, which publishes the scholarship-aggregation website scholarshipscanada.com, says companies have recently been promoting more CSR-oriented scholarships on his site. And Jane Thompson, executive director of the TD Scholarships for Community Leadership program, concurs that corporate interest in the space is growing fast. “Partly it’s about earning what people call the social license to operate and burnishing brand image,” says Dr. Thompson, adding, “it’s absolutely critical for workforce attraction, particularly for millennials, to feel good about the work they’re doing.”

The importance of CSR has become an HR mantra in recent years, and it’s backed up by research: A 2016 study of job seekers aged 18 to 36, published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, found a clear link between robust CSR policies and workforce attraction. Other studies have found similar results internationally.

And that makes CSR strategies that target a university crowd even more appealing, says Dev Jennings, director of the Canadian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Alberta. “Many of these scholarships are just a few thousand dollars,” he says. “Students and parents appreciate it, and you get good spread for your spending.”

Started in 1996, TD’s Scholarships for Community Leadership is one of the oldest and biggest CSR-focused scholarships in Canada, providing recipients with up to $70,000 over four years, and offering summer employment with the bank. It prioritizes community involvement over academic achievement when selecting applicants, and will fund students entering any program.

The Ted Rogers Scholarship Fund, which launched in 2017, has a similar approach. The company partners with 15 community organizations (for example, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YMCA, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Canada, among others) to identify candidates who’ve shown leadership skills and community involvement. The program has so far furnished 318 students nationwide with scholarships worth $10,000 each.

Another newcomer to the fold is Beedie Luminaries, a scholarship-granting foundation started by Vancouver property developer Ryan Beedie with a $50-million personal donation. That makes the program more philanthropy than strict CSR, but it reflects strongly on the Beedie brand overall. And as with Rogers’ and TD’s scholarships, it’s open to students in any field of study, marking another emerging trend (traditionally, many corporate scholarships have come from the energy and financial sectors, supporting students studying specific fields that feed companies’ own recruiting pipelines).

According to Dr. Thompson at TD, this new focus is less about workforce recruitment and more about meeting student’s changing preferences. “I’m amazed that universities have been able to pivot so fast into fields around environmentalism, social justice, international development,” she says. “All that stuff [is] on the cutting edge of what 17-year-olds care about.”

Scholarships that are not too narrowly focused also make sense for companies looking to connect with a workforce entering a rapidly changing, disruption-prone economy. “Specificity makes less sense today,” says Dr. Jennings. “You see now a generation moving into big data and AI, and in general you see that people are trying to take a broader positioning on what skills and types of employees will be attracted to their firm.”

And, he reiterates, education funding is simply excellent bang for the CSR buck, with just a few thousand dollars generating feel-good stories about helping young Canadians. Ms. Scott concurs: “I think there’s a lot of storytelling benefits that come with them. … A scholarship program is long. You’re supporting a student right out of high school and that creates a real connection with the student.”

Aube Giroux will attest to that. Today a Nova Scotia-based documentary filmmaker, she was among the first TD Scholars in 1996. She says that the scholarship was vital in funding her education, and in providing opportunities beyond schooling. “I come from a fairly low-income family,” she says, “and without it I would have come out of school with enormous debt, and fewer opportunities to travel and work.” Ms. Giroux took advantage of TD’s offer of summer employment anywhere in the country, which let her live in multiple cities. She even volunteered one summer at a women’s shelter, where TD paid her equivalent wages.

TD actively tries to maintain relationships with its scholarship recipients after graduation, hosting conferences and events and building what Dr. Thompson calls a “network of emerging leaders.” That relationship with Ms. Giroux was tested in 2016, however, when she and 68 other TD Scholars signed an open letter to TD, asking them to withdraw investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Ms. Giroux says she received no pressure from TD, but she thinks younger students, still receiving their scholarships, might have felt more reticent to speak out against the company. Nonetheless, she says, the experience didn’t break the bond with TD: “Despite everything, I still have that, and it’s lasted long after the scholarship itself.”

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