Position: Chief executive of Siemens Foundation, a District organization that provides charitable grants to support educational initiatives in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States. The foundation is the charitable arm of Siemens Corp., a U.S. subsidiary of Siemens AG, a global conglomerate in electronics and electrical engineering.
David Etzwiler’s mother ran the country’s largest community foundation. Its impact on the community inspired him to become an attorney in nonprofit law. After law school, he practiced as a tax attorney before moving to various nonprofits, leading the operations of one that helped victims of domestic violence. After stints at a few other charities, he took the reins at Siemens Foundation.
Warren Buffett has said that there is no market test in philanthropy. You can continue to do the wrong things and there are no consequence. So what does it take to be successful in philanthropy?
In corporate philanthropy, there actually is a market test. You have to show value to your employees, business partners and community partners. There has to be a real commitment to plunge in and deal with the issues of today. But you also have to think about how do I bring my company along? How do I become a trusted business partner and show value to the company? When I was at Medtronic, we were at $6.5 million in terms of what we gave annually. When I left there, we were at $31.5 million. A lot of that was the growth of the company. There was a moment when they reconsidered cutting back our giving. But the chief financial officer at a board meeting stood up and said, ‘We committed to 10 percent, and we ought to stay on it.’ We did. That’s a great day when you’re running corporate philanthropy. That’s a way you serve more people better. You find that sweet spot of societal need, business assets and business opportunity, and find the return there.
So there is a market test?
Even 10 years ago, it was almost heresy to talk about the fact that you have to find ways to align with the business. Today, there’s an unapologetic insistence from corporations around the globe that the moral imperative is to define that alignment. Folks now understand that if you’re serious about serving society in a better way and you’re in a corporate environment, you have to find a way to pull on the billions of assets and get that aligned.
What are common mistakes made in corporate philanthropy?
They too frequently want to separate their philanthropy work from their business. They think somehow it’s too pure for those dialogues to take place together. There’s no doubt that you have to know where the legal and ethical lines are. There has to be bright lines; it’s not a matter of staying one step back from that line, it’s a matter of staying three to five steps back from that line. But the mistake that some leaders make is that they distance themselves from their business units rather than embrace them. If I’m not a trusted business partner at Siemens, that’s not good for the people I wake up wanting to serve each morning.
How have you grown most as a leader since your early days?
One of my best mentors said to me you have to hand the vision off to other folks so they can give it back to you. That’s really fundamental to my leadership style. I have the confidence that handing the vision to others is the best way to ensure that they can give it back to you.
— Interview with Vanessa Small