The Rising Tide of Flagship Programs: How Corporate Giving Is Expected To Evolve

From Adobe Youth Voices and Microsoft YouthSpark, to Cisco Networking Academy and IBM Smarter Cities Challenge, corporations continue to bundle and align their community investment strategies into suites of high-impact programs – Flagship Programs.

The Big Idea
A flagship is an old naval term for the fastest, largest, most heavily equipped and well known vessel in a fleet, generally carrying the commanding officer. Thus, a flagship corporate philanthropy program is a single global program from which all other community investment activities and initiatives feed into or stem from; as opposed to the ad hoc giving of traditional programs, or even more organized strategies that utilize "giving pillars" to guide investment decisions.
The Growing Trend
According to a study by Corporate Citizenship (Flagship Social Investment Programmes, 2015), this approach is likely to become the norm throughout corporate philanthropy and corporate community investment units. While only 12% of survey respondents claimed to house a flagship program currently, 70% of the remaining respondents said they plan to begin developing one within the next two years.
The report claims that adopting such a strategy allows companies to “differentiate their brand, cut through the noise and achieve meaningful impact that is aligned with their core business.” It cites the rising expectations of leadership and shareholders to see more concrete returns on community investments. The flagship model transforms the nebulous inputs and outcomes of many corporate giving and employee volunteerism programs into a more solidified venture within the organization.
All of this is likely influenced by the seminal work of Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer (Creating Shared Value, 2006). Flagship programs provide practitioners with more concise ways to demonstrate the business and societal benefit created by their strategic investments.
The Many Implications
On August 26, Northern California Grantmakers and Microsoft hosted a representative from Corporate Citizenship to review the report findings and address the implications of the growing trend. The bulk of the presentation was focused on the various nuances involved with steering our "fleets" in this direction.
There were some questions raised about the differences between flagship programs, signature programs and signature partnerships. A signature program demonstrates a company's formal commitment to a cause; a signature partnership demonstrates formal commitment to a nonprofit/NGO. The speaker explained that a truly effective flagship program is characterized as being a stand-alone global initiative that probably garners the majority of your unit's budget share, volunteer efforts and marketing energy – a leading signature program, if you will.
In the end, companies are warned against rushing into things. There’s nothing worse for your CSR unit than investing in a massive undertaking like this and having it fall to pieces. The strategy needs to be sound. The essential ingredients for successfully crafting a flagship program are listed and discussed in the report:
1.     Purpose - What are the key business drivers of the program?
2.     Space - What are the key social/environmental drivers of the program?
3.     Resources - What internal and external resources must be used and leveraged to achieve success?
4.     Impact - How will progress and success be measured and evaluated?
5.     Story - What is the core message of the program and how will it be communicated to stakeholders?
So, what does this mean for a CSR practitioner? These trends can impact practitioners’ abilities to maintain or evolve corporate programs.  But, at the end of the day, your program is your program.  If you don’t think this approach is right for your organization, that is perfectly fine. This report merely made an observation that companies are naturally adopting these practices and will continue to do so.
However, one major advantage of investing in flagship programs is their marketability and the boost in brand equity they can yield. As more companies move in this direction, the pressure to remain relevant and competitive among consumers and talent will be felt among practitioners attempting to push established initiatives down the pipeline and pull new ideas up the ladder. These programs, if done well, can give CSR teams greater clout amongst internal and external stakeholders. Their absence could have the opposite effect, depending on the industry.  
The Great Examples
The final factor for designing successful flagship programs is the story that companies tell to key stakeholders regarding program inputs, outcomes and impact. The following is a list of flagship or leading signature programs that seem to capture the essence of the concepts shared above. May this serve as a guide for any corporation embarking on the journey to create its own flagship program. 
Company Name Flagship or Leading Signature Program Program Description
Adobe Adobe Youth Voices This global program provides youth with resources and training to create digital media artwork that expresses their thoughts on important issues. 
Cisco Systems Cisco Networking Academy Cisco Networking Academy is an IT skills and career building program for learning institutions and individuals worldwide.
IBM IBM Smarter Cities Challenge The Smarter Cities Challenge deploys top IBM experts to help cities around the world address their most critical challenges.
Microsoft Microsoft YouthSpark This company-wide initiative is dedicated to helping youth all around the globe learn new skills and secure dream career opportunities.
Oracle Oracle Academy This program leverages Oracle’s global technology leadership to deliver a complete portfolio of computer science learning resources to educational institutions.
Palantir Philanthropy Engineering Program Palantir deploys its data analysis technology and expertise to solve complex problems like disease outbreaks, human trafficking and disaster relief logistics.
Symantec Symantec's Cyber Career Connection (SC3) The program provides underserved young adults and veterans with targeted education, training and certifications that position them to fill in-demand cybersecurity jobs and enter long-term careers.