Root Causes: The Clarity of Michele Sullivan and the Remaking of the Caterpillar Foundation

In late September, 60,000 people flooded Central Park for a celebrity-studded concert featuring the likes of Jay Z and Alicia Keys. The event was organized by the Global Poverty Project, to rally support for its ambitious goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. 

One of the stars that took the stage over six hours was a tiny woman with close-cropped hair and a Midwestern twang named Michele Sullivan.

Sullivan didn't perform, but rather spoke as a top sponsor of the concert. And while she's not the kind of star you'll read about in People, she is a star in the world of global philanthropy, and for some good reasons. 

A few years back, the Caterpillar Foundation, where Sullivan is president, was the hum-drum philanthropic arm of the Peoria-based heavy equipment giant. Today, it's at the forefront of the fight against global poverty. What happened? 

Sullivan turned the place upside down, that's what happened. This second generation Caterpillar lifer took the foundation's helm in 2011, and nothing has been the same there since. 

If you listen to some foundation presidents, and assorted philanthropoids, tackling the world's biggest problems sounds awfully complicated. If you listen to Sullivan, it sounds very simple. 

"Root Causes"

When Sullivan swapped out a job on the business side of Caterpillar to lead the foundation, the company followed a pretty traditional model of philanthropy, like so many other companies. It made safe and predictable donations, viewing itself more as a contributor to good works than any kind of agent of change. 

The Caterpillar Corporation is a behemoth, with $55 billion in revenues last year and operations around the world, including a footprint in many developing countries. In fact, half its labor force works overseas. The company has long engaged in corporate giving both at home and abroad, with grant dollars almost evenly split between the two. 

Sullivan took a hard look at that giving when she took over the foundation and she asked a simple question: "What is the best investment for the dollar?" 

Sullivan has an MBA from Bradley University (also in Peoria), and the no-nonsense outlook of a woman who spent some two decades working her way upward in a big Midwestern corporation, where her sister also works and her dad worked before them. 

"I treat the foundation like a business," Sullivan told me in a recent interview. "When we make an investment, I look to get at the root causes [of a problem]... Otherwise you’re just addressing the symptoms, and the causes will still be there.” 

While that's an obvious insight, it's anything but the dominant operating idea at many corporate foundations, which tend to be more comfortable with Band-Aid giving than work that goes deeper, work that might potentially cause controversy. Which is why these foundations dump mountains of cash and in-kind assistance on charity outfits that mainly clean up messes, as oppose to stop them from happening. 

(Sometimes corporate foundations clean up after their parent companies, as we pointed out yesterday in the case of the Walmart Foundation giving to foodbanks even as large numbers of Walmart workers rely on foodstamps thanks to the company's near-poverty level wages.) 

But Band-Aid giving didn't make much sense to Sullivan. "There's only so much money to invest, and we look for the best ways to spend it."

A Focus on Girls

Guided by this mindset, Sullivan began digging deep into global poverty issues after taking over leadership of the Caterpillar Foundation. It didn't take her long to zero in on the role of girls and women, which she came to see as all-important in understanding the cycle of poverty, as have so many development advocates lately.

Sullivan says that because girls often aren't going to school and are marrying very young, they aren't getting the chance to better themselves—and contribute to bettering their society. In effect, half the human capital of many poor societies is sitting on the sidelines, consigned to lives of semi-literacy and drudgery. Change that, Sullivan believes, and you can change anything. “If a girl is successful, so is the rest of the family. It helps everyone. If you help the girl, you help the family and the village and the society.” 

This is hardly a novel insight. A focus on empowering girls entered development circles in back in the 1990s, and many foundations have long been working this territory. But it's notable for a large corporate funder to make girls a focal point, and surely no coincidence that Sullivan is the first woman president of the Caterpillar Foundation, which was established in 1952. 

One reason this shift matters is the resources that Caterpillar brings to the table. The foundation will spend around $60 million this year, with just over half that going abroad, and some 40 percent going for education, with grantmaking to raise up girls a big focus. 

One of Caterpillar's grantees is the Resource Foundation, which got $3 million last year from the foundation to advance its education efforts and gender equality in Latin America. Another grantee is 10x10, a fund that focuses on drawing attention to the importance of girl's education and has been making waves with a powerful film on the lives on girls in developing countries, Girls Rising

The foundation and Sullivan have also been deeply involved in networking efforts among advocates of girls empowerment, and is a supporter of the G(irls)20 Summit, an annual event that brings together young women from around the world to address many of the same issues taken up at G20 meetings, but with an eye toward gender and empowerment. 

Why WASH Matters

If you've been following the Caterpillar Foundation's grantmaking, you'll notice that some of its biggest recent gives have been for water, sanitation, and hygiene issues (WASH).

What do these grants have to do with girls' empowerment? Everything, according to Sullivan. 

"If a family doesn't have water, it's the girls that go get it," says Sullivan. This can involve hours of walking and carrying heavy water jugs every day, making it impossible to go to school. “If we can provide water and a girl goes to school, she’s less likely to get married to get pregnant, less likely to get married early.” 

And WASH matters for gender equity in other ways, too, Sullivan says. The onset of menstruation can be difficult enough for girls; it's harder still to manage without bathrooms in homes and schools, and this can stop girls from engaging in school and society just when they need to be stepping up. As well, the lack of bathrooms means that girls need to go out at night to relieve themselves, putting themselves at risk of being sexually assaulted, which is a common occurrence. In turn, being the victim of an assault can lead to life setbacks from pregnancy, trauma, or shame. 

Damaging girls in this way doesn't just hurt them, Sullivan stresses; it hurt their families and the society. So for Sullivan, investing in WASH is the same as investing in gender equity, and maybe one of the most important kind of investments the foundation can make, as well as one the plays to its strengths as a maker of heavy machinery. In recent months, as we've discussed, Caterpillar has given multi-million dollar grants to charity:water and (See: Why Did This Corporate Funder Just Give Charity:Water Five Million Bucks?)

Into the Bigger Fight

Beyond seeing the need to directly attack the root causes of global poverty, Michele Sullivan more recently came to another realization: Investing in advocacy was also crucial.

Again, that's pretty basic stuff for many foundations, but edgier terrain for corporate funders, and Sullivan says embracing advocacy "was a big change for us."

And as with WASH, the foundation is jumping in with guns blazing: In August, it announced an initial $5 million gift to ONE Campaign, the premier global poverty advocacy organization. And late last month, the foundation said it was giving $2.5 million to the Global Poverty Project for work to build grassroots support for attacking global poverty.

That's the group behind the Central Park concert last month where Sullivan spoke. And when Sullivan took the stage, it was the culmination of a quite a journey—both for her, and the Caterpillar Foundation.