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From top business executive to CEO of a nonprofit, a fresh perspective on CSR

August 1, 2019

Andrea Custis headshot (002)

If not for a broken water main that flooded her street, Andrea Custis, in her role as a senior executive at Verizon, would have been at a meeting at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Tragically, she “lost people that day in both buildings—the Trade Center & the Pentagon” from that devastating terror attack. Still, Andrea rushed to the scene the next day at the request of President George Bush. The President recognized the need to get the American Financial district back up, because “we need to send a message” -- definitive proof to the world that the United States, while desolate, was not defeated.

As she did for so many years as a senior vice-president for Verizon, Andrea rose to the challenge. She eloquently tells how Con ed, AT&T and Verizon worked together, as a team and across corporations, to get it done. Andrea stood on the platform of the American Stock Exchange for the re-opening bell. And President Bush said: “Well done.”

Senior Verizon Exec for 31 Years

At Verizon for 31 years, in sales, marketing, human resources and operations, Andrea rose through various leadership roles from Vice President to Group President for Verizon Communications. In 2017, she chose to leave retirement to accept the role of President and CEO of the nonprofit Urban League of Philadelphia. We spoke with Andrea concerning her organization, the challenges of leading a nonprofit, and her involvement with the Satell Institute.

Why did you take the role of CEO of the Urban League?

I became the CEO of this institution to give people opportunities to be self-reliant!

We work in five vital areas: workforce development, health & wellness, youth and education, entrepreneurship, and housing counseling. Think of what those mean for the community.

What would be some current examples of your mission?

Housing counseling is a good example. We teach people how to purchase a home. Our team of counselors offered financial literacy education to 2,209 participants just this year. We encourage, we promote and foster responsible homeownership, and we educate and prepare people to navigate home purchasing, home repair and tenant related matters. That’s important.
Last year, we helped about 100 families purchase homes and we saved another 150 families from foreclosure. Think of what that means for those families and the positive effect on the economy.

Our entrepreneurship program with our Entrepreneurship Center has also had an impact—we teach, we train and we preach good business practices, work readiness and accountability. Do you know, in 2018 we successfully created 69 new jobs in small businesses, and provided access to over $4,000,000 in loans and contracts for the people who came to our Entrepreneurship Center. That Center offers customized training for businesses to equip them with the necessary skills to obtain growth.

You spent 31 years as a business leader, so you know there are always issues. What’s the big difference between for-profit and nonprofit?
What do you see as a number one problem for nonprofits?

Corporate America would never start from scratch each year for capital, yet we expect nonprofits to start from scratch in funding.

With all nonprofits—it doesn’t matter which —arts, animals, civic issues—everyone who works for a nonprofit is mission driven. It’s not money. You’re in it to make a difference. For my nonprofit I can answer what the struggle is in one word – funding. I’m not going to get teary eyed with you but that’s the word that keeps me up at night. The only thing stopping me from expanding our successful missions is the funding to be able to do it.

Have you benefitted from membership in the Satell Institute?

Oh, it’s unique, and I mean it, it’s such a unique opportunity for the business leaders who run this city to meet with the nonprofit leaders, to have conversations, to share ideas and to get to know each other. To sit in a room with CEOs and have a conversation on mission. On their vision, why do they do it. I have to tell you; these executives don’t just talk. They invest. And I see the benefits in two ways— “mind share” and funding.

How did you learn about the Satell Institute?

Bobby Keys, the General Manager of Enterprise first told me about SI. He said that membership would be a very good thing for us. And I agreed. I’ve lived in NYC, NJ, VA … and nowhere else was there anything like this.

One of the requirements for membership in SI is for a business to make a four-year commitment of at least $25,000 per year to a nonprofit. I talked to the CEO of one company that had supported us for years about all the benefits of this CEO organization. He was not a member, and so I asked, “You’re giving me $10,000 right now. Would you be willing to increase that amount to $25,000 a year for four years and become a member? He recognized the value of the Satell Institute and agreed and is now a Board Member of the Institute. On another occasion, I approached a CEO whose company had just moved into the Philadelphia area. I told him about SI and how this membership would give him access to the leading CEOs in the area, leaders who believed like he did. Then I invited him to be my guest for the private CEO Conference. I asked for the $25,000 commitment for four years, and his organization gave me $30,000. His donation allows us to do some health and wellness and help black and brown women in the community understand why they need to get their babies immunized. How’s that for health progress?

As a former executive of a major corporation and now the head of a prominent nonprofit, you bring a unique perspective to CSR. Can you share some thoughts?

Well, I worked for Verizon for 31 years, and I can tell you from the first day, that company had a strong commitment to give back to the communities where we lived and worked. I gave my time and energy and so did many others. We had volunteers working in the community, whether it was a soup kitchen or volunteering with young kids to help them get the right start. We even had corporate responsibility groups, and many in the black community still remember them by name. The biggest change I’ve noticed in CSR is the emergence of the Satell Institute. He didn’t have to do any of this—he wants to make this world, make this city—a better place. So, I say God bless Ed Satell and generous corporate people like him. It’s been amazing.

Meaningful new opportunity for Nonprofit Affiliate Members of the Satell Institute

On November 14th, 2019, at the Franklin Institute, the Satell Institute will convene its first private Business-Nonprofit Leadership Summit for Satell Institute Nonprofit Affiliate Members. The Institute is delighted to present this event for our Nonprofit Affiliates, who we consider Heroes of Society, as they improve the quality of life and take on some of society’s most intractable problems.

This will be a unique opportunity for nonprofit leaders to hear, interact with, and learn from for-profit CEOs and CSR executives about how to attract and maintain business-nonprofit collaborations and effective CSR initiatives. The Summit will also feature vibrant interactive leadership round table discussions and idea exchange for professional attendees which are highly valued.

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