Equity as a CSR solution

A Canadian company is offering an easy charity program to fast-growing companies thanks to some VC know-how.
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Read any consumer study released in the last 10 years and it will hammer home how millennials demand companies stand for something. The need for solid corporate social responsibility programs have driven companies in several different directions, from sponsoring events to employee volunteer days.

This tends to be a bit easier for larger companies with budgets set aside for donations. But a number of programs have sprung up in recent years that allow smaller companies to build charitable donation into their growth through equity. In Canada, a number of brands recently signed on with Upside, which accepts warrants on future stocks that, after an IPO or acquisition, get traded in for cash that goes to a charity of the company’s choice.

“As a startup, we’re not a giant corporation with thousands of employees,” says Allen Lau, co-founder of Wattpad, a story-sharing website (pictured left). “Our time is variable, so participation in any charitable donation or CSR has to be very simple and not take up a lot of our time.”

Wattpad is one of 15 companies that have signed with Upside in the last three months as part of the latter company’s 150×150 initiative, which seeks to get the firm 150 clients by the end of Canada’s sesquicentennial year. Lau says the program works for his firm because the more work his team puts into making his company successful, the more they will be able to donate to their selected charity.

Automated online investment service Wealthsimple and bond issuer Overbond have also joined up this year.

Similar programs operate in the U.S. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff pledged 1% of the company’s time, product and equity to charity in the late 90s, kicking off the Pledge 1% organization that has approximately 1,800 member companies. In Israel, Tmura follows a similar model to what Upside has adopted.

“These two organizations were doing great things,” says Jennifer Couldrey, Upside’s foundation manager (above right). Brightspark Venture’s Mark and Rob Antoniades, who runs Information Venture partners, reached out to both Pledge 1% and Tmura “and decided we needed something like this here in Canada.”

The model, she says, works at any scale provided a company has a “liquidity event” like an initial public offering or acquisition in its future. “There’s lots of ways a company can do it. Typically, companies are using their employee stock option plan to keep it as simple as possible and leverage a system they already have in place.

“Most of our companies tend to be tech-focused, given the nature of the VC community we were born into. Bu the model really does work for anyone. By donating equity, it allows you to reinvest any cash you have in growing your business,” Couldrey says. “As long as you foresee a point where your shares are worth more than they are today, the model works.”