Calgary’s billion-dollar Benevity bets that good deeds are their own reward

Bono-backed tech firm says companies that engage their workers in social missions enjoy 57% lower employee turnover

What do former vice-president Al Gore, rock star and U2 frontman Bono, and Canadian-born Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, have in common?

All three have become prominent social entrepreneurs – hands-on philanthropists seeking new solutions to global ills. And all three are now invested in a Calgary company called Benevity, whose mission is to “help the world’s most iconic brands bring their purpose to life.”

Benevity began above a shawarma shop in 2008. Former CEO Bryan de Lottinville launched the firm to boost companies’ charitable contributions by helping them see social purpose as an investment, not a handout. Today, Benevity helps companies increase employee and customer engagement with a “gamified” platform that makes it easy and fun for firms, staff and clients to pursue their interests in donating to charity, volunteering, grant-making or taking positive social action. It then tracks the impact of their contributions. Benevity says companies that engage their people in social missions enjoy 57% lower employee turnover – and that saves major clients such as Microsoft, Apple, Telus, Kroger and Visa tens of millions of dollars a year.

With more than 650 employees and two million users, Benevity has processed donations worth more than $7 billion to 300,000 global charities. In December, Benevity became a rare Canadian “unicorn” – a company worth more than $1 billion – with its purchase by London-based private-equity firm HG Capital. Two months later, HG brought in some new partners, including two “strategic minority investors”: Bono and Skoll’s Rise Fund, and U.K.-based Generation, an impact-investment firm cofounded by Al Gore.

About the same time, de Lottinville stepped down as CEO. He was replaced by Benevity’s chief financial officer, Kelly Schmitt – a welcome sign that the new owners want current management to lead the company forward. And that’s important, because the plague year 2020 made many organizations value shared purpose. “It was the year that cemented the new role of business as a source of trust, hope, connection and empathy,” says Benevity’s chief impact officer, Sona Khosla. Now, she says, organizations have to develop systems to support those ideals. That means Benevity is expecting another big growth year; it plans to hire 300 new employees.

Khosla is also overseeing a new research arm, Benevity Impact Labs, which monitors industry trends, collects data and explores new issues, such as mental health, to help organizations better understand and measure social action. “We want people to support causes they care about, when they want to,” she says. “We’re using capitalism for all it can do.”

Benevity sees vast opportunities to expand by being a force for good. Beyond “HR,” it is helping clients embed purpose in their product and marketing experiences. The company offers workbooks and toolkits to help companies lean into events such as Pride or Earth Day, and it’s now helping clients evolve “corporate social responsibility” initiatives into strategic ESG (environmental, social and governance) programs. At the far end of the supply chain, Benevity is increasingly doing the cheque-processing for small charities, relieving corporations of a frustrating chore while helping struggling non-profits get paid sooner.

Bono hasn’t stopped by Benevity’s offices on the banks of the Bow River. Al Gore hasn’t dropped in for coffee. But leaders from Generation and Rise now sit on Benevity’s board, so the new advisors seem serious about helping. And why not? As Khosla says, most companies with ESG programs can measure their governance and environmental progress – but have no clue how to measure social impact. (Many charity professionals still refer to “the giving glow.”) Benevity is leading the race to promote, quantify and normalize goodness. If that doesn’t deserve A-list support, what does?

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