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The neighborhood pharmacy. The alternative to supermarkets. Chances are there is a CVS/pharmacy store within walking distance of your house. Or at least one within a couple of miles.

There was for me. As a new citizen, a kind CVS manager gave me my first American job, taught me how to differentiate between a nickel and a quarter – and the basics of customer service in a country where consumers rule a market spoiled with choice.

So how does a brand with deep community roots across a nation and significant impact support its business mission while keeping its social and environmental missions aligned and relevant? And how do you measure success beyond revenue dollars and flu shots?

I recently checked in with Eileen Howard Boone, SVP of Corporate Communications and Community Relations for CVS Caremark and VP of its foundation, the CVS Caremark Charitable Trust, for some insights into the pharmacy healthcare company’s CSR strategy as well as their unique perspective on community development.

License to Drive Results

“We have a license to drive social impact in ways that are independent of what’s going on in our company,” she began, explaining that the Foundation is the philanthropic arm of the company and reports to a board of trustees, giving Boone and her team some latitude to define their own priorities.

Interestingly, Boone is head of CVS’ Foundation but also heads the company’s communication efforts, highlighting a close alignment between impact and engagement within the centralized organization. “I sit across the company and work with our senior leadership on where we are going and how our
giving strategy fits with our future plans. Embedding the Foundation’s work and mission into the corporate strategy is critical to stay true to our business and values,” she explained.

Of course, as with most foundations, CVS’ Charitable Trust focuses primarily on the annual grant cycle. “Starting in 2012, we decided to focus on four categories: access to healthcare, coordinated care, early intervention and inclusion – a theme we use as a base criteria for all the grants we make,” she said.

“The primary focus through these categories is to measure how we along with our partners are driving impact in our markets. Are our nonprofit partners moving missions? Nine years ago, when I joined CVS, we weren’t measuring the impact of everything we were doing in our communities. It was scattered and not strategic. So we stepped back and asked: how are we living, operating and working in our communities?”

Need for Focus, Strategy

The introspection brought some expected results, namely, the need for focus and more research-based decisions. Eighteen months of research followed – with customers, employees, nonprofits, experts in pediatrics, etc. – on how to tighten the Foundation’s focus while having the most impact. “The idea was to find an issue of opportunity within healthcare that we could support and significantly impact five different ways: awareness, funding, in kind products, volunteerism and strategic counsel,” Boone emphasized.

“We wanted to have the opportunity to engage our employees. They live in our communities – and we were not leveraging their potential as volunteers, activists, decision makers and advisers,” she added.

In 2012, CVS employees donated an equivalent of $1 million in volunteering hours. But with 7,400 CVS Caremark: All kids canstores across diverse communities, volunteering and giving campaigns are effective only when localized. “Our All Kids Can program creates equal opportunity for all kids regardless of disability or situation and as we roll that out across our stores, we find that our employees really like to define “all kids can” in their own way. In one town, for example, it meant supporting the Special Olympics, in others it meant building a new playground,” Boone replied.

And that’s okay.

Volunteerism vs. Grants: Measuring Effectiveness

It’s difficult to have a cookie-cutter approach across 7,400 stores when local impact is the main driver. As the “local pharmacy building healthier communities,” CVS’ mandate is national but hyper-local in intensity. Do grants work better on a local level or volunteerism? With causes aplenty and communities diverse, how does the retailer juggle impact with dollars and employee time?’

According to Boone, monetary grants are definitely the first point of entry.

In 2012 alone, grants made through the All Kids Can program touched the lives of more than 5.8 million children and families. Despite all the benefits espoused about pro bono and volunteerism, the essence and impact of grant making is not lost on Boone who has been working in this sector for more than 20 years, including leading the Office Depot Foundation for six years.

When we think of our large national partners, we need to understand that once the initial grant is made, there are other opportunities for engagement that we must leverage to extend the impact of that grant. But that initial grant is critical to move the needle and scale programs,” she said, adding, “For example, in a New Bedford school, we sponsored an incoming fifth grade class to connect with
our pharmacists around careers in healthcare, hygiene, health issues etc. In Rhode Island, we supported a free clinic, a multilevel partnership that started with grants, but now sees pharmacists often volunteering to support the clinic,” she explained.

For NGOs, grants from companies like CVS are critical.

And Boone understands the importance of looking at impact through a multidimensional prism:

“Awareness is a big thing that we can bring along with our dollars and other assets for nonprofits. They become better at fundraising and implementing programs after they’ve done some due diligence,” she said. “It gives them confidence, competence and the much-needed publicity support, “she added.

Measuring Impact: Healthcare For All

As a mother of six, however, Boone does feel strongly about CVS’ primary impact area: healthcare for all. And that becomes a tough metric to measure when you take into account the company’s diverse communities’ needs.

“We have learned over the years that we need to be asking the right things. Last year, we announced a partnership with the National Association of Community Health Centers to distribute $3 million over three years, across their centers for chronic disease management programs – and plan to monitor results. Measurement will include everything from number of people served to patient health outcomes.”

“We strive to measure our impact in a variety of ways including quantitative results like the number of patients served or the number of additional days a clinic is open, qualitative measures program outcomes and employee participation. We also place a heavy focus on storytelling and gathering stories from our partners to bring to life the successes of a program.”

Yet, that’s measurement of specific programs.

What is the company’s impact on the sector it sits centrally within, i.e., access to all, quality of life, awareness, hygiene, etc.? How does CVS measure its success as a healthcare retailer? As a conscious business? As a neighborhood pharmacy? As a collaborator with pharmaceuticals?

In Boone’s mind, her footprint – and her employer’s – is pretty clear: “We feel we are successful if our nonprofits are successful,” she said.

It’s that simple.

Originally written for and published on CSRwire’s Commentary section Talkback on April 3, 2013.