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This is the third in an ongoing series of conversations with thought leaders in the philanthropic field. Meet Jon Sullivan, the Director of Corporate Communications for Aflac, where he leads the planning and execution of the company's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, external communication, and media relations.
1. What advice do you have for young people who would like to have a career in philanthropy and giving?
Advice or warning? Well, the word "warning" is too strong...but if you’re not passionate about it, don’t do it. It’ll become apparent this isn’t your passion. There’s jobs out there where you can manufacture the desire to do it, but you can’t do that with this. You’re either personally committed to it professionally or it won’t work out.
When we are making new hires, we are looking for people whose passion for this sort of thing is worn on their sleeves. We hired one woman recently who had been really interested in moving to CSR. She herself is a childhood cancer survivor; she had a passion for this. You’re working with a lot of nonprofit organizations, and if you’re not in line with them in terms of empathy for their missions, it’s going to be challenging.
2. What are some of the biggest challenges facing the philanthropic sector today?
When you try to define CSR, you can ask and get a million different answers. It can be difficult to determine your ROI and makes it challenging to define a budget. We’re fortunate here at Aflac to have a CEO and a CFO who intuitively get it. Aflac was doing CSR before CSR was a term. Certainly, [corporate leaders] like having it confirmed through research, and the Reputation Institute gives us a firsthand understanding.
CSR is somewhat subjective. You might find that one person’s definition of being a responsible company is different than the other. It can take some explaining and talking up the chain of command to have them understand the value.
3. What are you most proud of about your company?
It’s a passion, and that passion comes from the top down. The Aflac Cancer Center in Atlanta is [Aflac CEO] Dan Amos’s baby, he’s been involved for so long.
Because it resonates from the top down, it gives you a sense of pride to work for a company that gets it. Giving back is good for business, it’s also the right thing to do. That’s the part that makes it so authentic.
4. What experiences shaped you and/or prepared you for your current role?
I started in television news in Buffalo, New York, then I went into government for 12-13 years — I suppose you could say government is about helping people. [chuckles]
It's going to sound corny, but my first time at the Aflac Cancer Center, I got in an elevator with a young couple and their small child. And I knew exactly why they were there. If that doesn’t hit you, then I’m a little bit confused. Every time I’m there, I’m hit by it. I can’t walk into that building that serves children with cancer and not think, there but for the grace of God go I.
Because it’s so real, it nurtures the compassionate side within me. I’m impacted every time I'm there.
5. What inspires you?
When I first started, I met a Dr. Howard Katzenstein at the Aflac Cancer Center. [Dr. Katzenstein has since relocated to Jacksonville, FL.]
In the middle of our conversation, Howard got excited and started pointing at a child and said, "This is what success look like! Last year, that kid didn’t have a chance. Now he’s in remission."
What inspires me, I guess, is a lot of the people I work with have the passion to help kids. I’ve got two of mine. I always tell the people it’s the best part of my job. Doing what we do with kids.
People like him inspire me. Because of the authenticity. I would ask him, how do you do this? And he'd say, because everyone now and then, you have a success.
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