An Interview with Patrick Gaston, President, Western Union Foundation As the brilliant blue sky outlined the Rocky Mountains, I eagerly drove to Western Union Headquarters to meet Patrick Gaston, the new leadership of the corporation’s foundation. It was a perfect Colorado day to welcome him to Denver. I was humbled when we met, as he genuinely conveyed true compassion and kindness within moments of our introduction. Western Union philanthropic efforts are extraordinary, and now the foundation executive looks to the future with great aspiration.
Gaston arrived in Denver in December 2012 with a primary goal to build on the Western Union Foundation’s legacy of corporate philanthropy and to help create shared value, elevating the notion that a company can increase economic success while making the world a better place. Under his direction, he will continue the award-winning philanthropic initiatives previously led by past president Luella Chavez D’Angelo, now chief communications officer for Western Union.
Gaston is a visionary with real-world experience. Born and raised in Haiti, he led one of the largest corporate foundations in the United States as president of the Verizon Foundation. He later served as senior adviser to the Clinton-Bush Haiti fund, tying back to his roots. He also started a corporate social responsibility (CSR) consulting company, which prepared him for this challenging opportunity. Gaston has a strong respect for the work Western Union Foundation has contributed to our world. He says, “Luella created this foundation, and I am the beneficiary building on her great work.”
D’Angelo and her team supported programs focusing on economic development, education and disaster relief efforts as pathways toward a better future. Since its inception, the Western Union Foundation has awarded more than $85 million in grants to more than 2,591 nongovernmental organizations in more than 130 countries and territories. They were a winner of the prestigious Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) Excellence Award in 2009.
Gaston knows he has a great base to build on as he reflects on the past work done by Western Union and its employees, but he believes that the good can only grow and asks, “Why stop there? The power of CSR is the ability to tap into the human networks within the institutional networks. Bringing like-minded people together for a common cause can inspire positive change.” Collaboration can help change the outcome of our most pressing issues, such as poverty, access to education and economic sustainability.
Gaston intimately understands the power of Western Union’s core business—elevating communities and changing lives through financial inclusion. As Gaston describes, “As a youth, although we were not wealthy in terms of income, we were rich in values taught and promoted by our parents and extended family. These values were about education, integrity, family and spirituality.” Growing up in Haiti, this commitment to growth and education led his family to emigrate. His mother was the first to leave Haiti, for Cambridge, Massachusetts. He distinctly remembers when the Western Union envelope with the bright yellow logo, wired from his mother, arrived. As he understands firsthand, Western Union’s services—and the financial inclusion they provide—have lifted families from poverty and helped to strengthen families around the world. Sitting across from Gaston in his new office, his resilience was evident. He was a child of modest financial upbringing, but rich in values and his commitment to others.
His childhood experiences created a natural path to his current position as president of the foundation, and his experience and education certainly add to his credentials. Gaston holds a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts and an M.B.A. from Northeastern University. In 2004, he became president of Verizon Foundation, one of the 15 largest corporate foundations in America, where he led and implemented innovative programs that promoted social change in key focus areas of education, literacy, health care and domestic violence prevention. Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, under Gaston’s leadership, Verizon instituted donation texts for Haiti victims that resulted in $10 million raised by employees and customers. Following his service as senior adviser to the Clinton-Bush Haiti fund, he continued to move forward with innovative approaches to solving community problems when he founded Gastal Networks, a management consulting firm assisting organizations with building corporate social responsibility and high-impact philanthropic strategies.
Gaston admits he is a lifelong learner and upholds that, “Education is the change agent to the future for those in need.” So naturally it is a committed and intentional move to be part of Western Union’s Education for Better initiative. Unveiled during the launch of the United Nations Education First Initiative, Western Union’s Education for Better program will provide an average of up to $10,000 per day for more than 1,000 days in potential Western Union Foundation grant funding for nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in the education space, including support for one million days of school through a new corporate cause-marketing campaign.
Doing this alone is not an option. A collaborative approach to invest in our students today, in a measurable and purposeful way, is mandatory to fill tomorrow’s workforce, he believes.
It was a pleasure meeting a Fortune 500 executive who profoundly believes that corporate engagement in society is essential to economic growth. More of the ICOSA interview with Patrick Gaston follows—in his own words on looking to the future and knowing his next move.
ICOSA: What is the difference between philanthropy and a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy?
Gaston: CSR can encompass a number of disciplines—shared value, cause marketing, governance, compliance and more—which all serve to grow the business. Here at Western Union, we understand that our products and services contribute to our financial strength as a company, as well as the financial strength of the people we serve. A corporate responsibility strategy is about how our business does well by doing good. Corporate philanthropy is what it sounds like—philanthropic giving to programs around the world working to make lives better. Philanthropy flows from, is part, of corporate responsibility.
Philanthropy has existed for many years—it’s really about good will. Philanthropy, then diversity, environmentalism and so on, inform corporate responsibility. One flows into the other.
ICOSA: You have worked extensively with large corporate foundations, first at Verizon and now at Western Union Foundation. Have you seen changes in the giving strategies over the last few years? If so, what changes?
Gaston: I am pleased to see giving strategies which align with the mission, expertise and consumers of the corporation. By strategically focusing giving, companies are able to leverage their expertise to build meaningful partnerships across the board—with NGOs, with the company’s business partners, consumers, employees, etc. This amplifies the company’s giving impact and makes it possible to make a real difference in people’s lives.
ICOSA: Should all size companies incorporate CSR into their business strategy? Is it a trend or visionary?
Gaston: CSR has no boundaries; we can all do better by doing good. To make an impact, CSR needs to be embedded in every aspect of how the firm does business, and senior leaders need to be fully committed.
ICOSA: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges nationally and globally going forth? Can the private sector help? Can you please share an example?
Gaston: The big challenges get back to economic opportunity for everyone, which is dependent on having relevant skills for a 21st-century workforce. I think access to education is one of the most basic, fundamental ways the private sector can help.
Look at community colleges from a different framework. These regional colleges are quite diverse in student population, and more than 40 percent of all U.S. college students attend a community college. It is the center of excellence and the very location of economic opportunity. We must build partnerships to get the type of employee we need for the future. It can’t be just government, NGOs or admissions offices. We need the private sector to invest in the students. We need this now to grow our workforce. This same framework, where the private sector educating assists in developing curriculum directly for workforce needs, can be replicated in other countries to preserve access to education that promotes real income.
ICOSA: What do you personally hope to achieve through Western Union’s Education for Better initiative?
Gaston: Education has always been important to my family. I recognized early that it was my ticket to the better things in life, so I was willing to push hard to get a higher degree. I want to make it possible for others to have access to the same opportunities I had.
With Education for Better, Western Union is leveraging its assets to promote education, the surest path to a better future.
Unveiled during the launch of the United Nations Education First Initiative, Western Union’s Education for Better program will provide up to $10,000 per day for more than 1,000 days for nonprofits and NGOs working in the education space. It also includes support for one million days of school through PASS, a cause-marketing program in conjunction with the UEFA Europa League.
ICOSA: How will you measure success?
Gaston: Before a company jumps into measuring, you have to know what you want to measure. Otherwise the matrixes are meaningless and not quantifying an outcome. So setting goals is key, and collaborating with partners around these goals pushes it forward. For example, on education there are thousands of variables to measure, but identifying goals that result in employment can be measured. Eventually the economic impact can be realized and measured as well.
ICOSA: How important is a collaborative effort to the Education for Better initiative?
Gaston: Western Union understands the power of the business sector. I have never experienced an organization that is so comprehensively addressing social issues with their partners—in partnership with their partners. For example, with our education goals, we could double, even triple, the effort combining the forces of collaborative partners, from NGOs, governments and the private sector. Using our influence, we can gather momentum through aligned partnerships. It’s not just Western Union—it’s our communities doing good—and we all will prosper. That brings me to shared value. You hear those words a lot. It is shared value for all partners getting involved to make a real difference in the communities where they operate. This is something that I will be jumping on because I know it will make a real impact.
ICOSA: Do you have any thoughts or advice to those that are thinking about making their next move?
Gaston: From a career standpoint, shared value philanthropy is relatively new. Be flexible—lead with commitment to community. Volunteer for things that you think are important. If you work for a company that doesn’t emphasize corporate responsibility, learn about it and find out what opportunities exist to promote this in your company. Find people who share your commitment. Collectively we can make a significant global change; that’s my passion.
On my way home from the meeting with Gaston, I looked up into the vivid blue Colorado sky above the peaks of the foothills and saw an amazing display of Canadian geese. There must have been thousands making formations that were intricate and inspiring. These birds that we see every day need each other; they work best collaboratively, all working for a common goal of migration. On this extraordinary day, I saw the geese as a symbol of collaborative change for good.
Cristin Tarr is co-founder and managing director, speaker, trainer and corporate social responsibility specialist at Business Service Corps, LLC (BSC). As a transformative social enterprise, BSC assists companies with high-impact community engagement programs. To contact Cristin, visit www.businessservicecorps.com. Amy Fischer is the director of social ventures for Western Union Foundation. To learn more about the Western Union Foundation, visit, http://foundation.westernunion.com/.