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Patricia Toothman and Sam Caplan

A Blueprint for High-Engagement CSR Programs

This episode of Impact Audio features Patricia Toothman, social impact manager at Splunk, giving an inside look at what it takes to turn employees into CSR champions.

A blueprint for high-engagement CSR programs

28:23 MIN

Patricia Toothman, social impact manager at Splunk, and Sam Caplan explore what it takes to turn employees into CSR champions.



Without employee support, CSR programs don’t stand much of a chance. But employees aren’t just looking to get involved, they want to be inspired. At Splunk, Patricia Toothman has made it her mission to strengthen the connections between teams and give everyone a sense of ownership in the company’s social impact work. 

This episode covers how to:

  • Lead without formal authority

  • Meet employees where they are 

  • Develop a cohort of mission-focused peers

  • Align efforts across your company


Picture of your guest, Patricia Toothman

Patricia Toothman

Patricia Toothman is a social impact manager at Splunk, where she manages the global employee engagement programs, community partnerships, and strategic giving. She has over ten years of experience in the CSR space, working with global brands across multiple industries.

Picture of your guest, Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Inspired by the amazing work performed by grantmakers of all stripes, at Submittable, Sam strives to help them achieve their missions through better, more effective software. Sam has served as founder of New Spark Strategy, Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. Sam recently published a series of whitepapers with the Technology Association of Grantmakers titled “The Strategic Role of Technology in Philanthropy.”


Episode notes:


[JAZZ MUSIC PLAYING] SAM CAPLAN: In 1928, while running an experiment, microbiologist Alexander Fleming noticed something unexpected in one of his Petri dishes, mold. A mold spore had contaminated the bacteria Fleming was working with and the bacteria had stopped growing altogether. It might not sound all that remarkable, but that Petri dish led to one of the greatest discoveries in medical history, penicillin, the first antibiotic. Almost immediately, Fleming understood the significance of this discovery, and he was right. Penicillin would go on to save hundreds of millions of lives. 

One of the most impressive aspects of this story, aside from the science, is that Alexander Fleming could have made a fortune off of this discovery, but instead, he chose to transfer the patent to the US and UK governments, allowing penicillin to be distributed widely at low cost. For anyone working in social impact, Fleming's spirit of generosity is an inspiration and a lesson. 

To really change the world for the better, you have to be willing to create something and then let it go. Patricia Toothman, social impact manager at Splunk, a global data company, takes this approach when it comes to her work, of building and letting go. She creates programs that focus on the collective over the individual and allow everyone to feel a sense of ownership. 


Welcome to Impact Audio. I’m your host, Sam Caplan, VP of Social Impact at Submittable. This episode originally aired as part of our Impact Studio Conference in 2022. Our 2023 conference is coming this fall. Stay tuned for more details. Last October, we sat down with Patricia Toothman to get a behind-the-scenes look at Splunk’s growing social impact program. 

Patricia pulls back the curtain to reveal what it takes to evolve and scale a CSR program at a growing company. In the process, she explores both the philosophical and logistical aspects of creating long-term impact. 

Over the last few years, the landscape of corporate social responsibility has shifted. Companies are facing pressures—both externally and internally—to be authentic in how they put values into action. And Many employees are holding their leaders accountable like never before.  

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: I think that people are really good about seeing the BS, and they're not standing for it anymore. And I think employees are voicing, questioning, and challenging. Leadership has become the norm, and those leaders who can stand their own, who can admit when they're not the smartest person in the room, that's going to take companies like that very far. But again, this focus on authenticity is key. 

And it's really hard. I mean, everyone is still trying to grapple with, who am I? What do I stand for? And it changes every day, and I think that's OK. And in the realm of corporations taking a stand, if someone else is doing it, why not us? Why can't we say something? What's the worst that's going to happen? 

SAM CAPLAN: Purpose has been a part of Splunk's mission from the beginning, and these deep roots have helped their social impact program grow into what it is today. Patricia explains that it started organically, with a seedling of an idea which they called Splunk for Good. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: Back in the day, we were Spunk for Good, which is a great brand to put out there when you're young and eager. And it really started with engineers wanting to do more with our products, wanting to work beyond the traditional use cases or customers, and using our product for good. And that grassroots and employee focus has always been the foundation of our work. 

Since then, we've added on a really robust product donation program; employee engagement, which I was brought on to scale that program globally; in addition to our grant-making, workforce development. There's so much that we're doing under the social impact pillar-- and in the last two years, bringing on a new chief impact officer. We've also encompassed our entire global impact program. So that's environmental sustainability, data responsibility, our social impact. 

And that's in addition to our work on ethical and inclusive growth, so DE&I, talent retention. And then our social impact pillar is really where I focus. So that's my bread and butter. That's my favorite part. And connecting all of those pillars and really working towards our overall mission of bridging the data divide, that's our new BHAG, our Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. And that's our North Star as we're evolving iterating creating new programs. 

SAM CAPLAN: Having a North Star, or a guiding set of values, is important in CSR, but what's unique about corporate philanthropy is that your North Star must sit at the intersection of your business and your social mission. Your program's long-term success hinges on this alignment, which means CSR professionals need to have a foot in each world, the corporate and the philanthropic. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: This is corporate philanthropy. What are those business practices that are super successful? And how can we bring that so we can create more resources, support social and environmental challenges? So for us at Splunk, this iteration of aligning directly to our business, our new mission of bridging the data divide, it's brand new. 

People don't know what the data divide is. This is new territory, and it's scary and it gives you nervous tingles, because no one else has done this before. So we're taking the leadership role here and building that community and network and really inspiring others to join, and that's really exciting to me. 

In addition, we're not letting go of the amazing programs we've built over the past seven, eight years, redefining them so they align directly to this mission. And that clear and concise direction makes it really easy for people to jump on board. When they know what they're doing, they know the why behind, and they know how they can make a difference, that's truly the key of how we're able to engage so many employees in our programs. 

SAM CAPLAN: Engaging employees is important because of one simple truth, social impact is a collective effort. It's not about any one single person or leader. The power of the work is in what everyone can accomplish together. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. The majority of what I do on a day-to-day basis is leading without formal authority. I don't have a fancy job title. I don't have my own parking spot at the office. And the success of our programs is really dependent on employees across the enterprise. 

And so I can shout from the rooftops, but I'm only going to get x amount of people. So what I find to be a huge game-changer in employee engagement and social impact is letting others tell your story. And that doesn't mean here's the talking points but still give me all the credit, but bringing others in on your journey. One example I can share are our people team. They're really the first point of interaction with candidates. Our talent acquisition team employees have questions, they email that team. 

And folks don't really see VTO and matching gifts as, Oh, Patricia runs that on the social impact team in San Francisco. They see it as, oh, this is an overarching program of Splunk. So how can I empower other organizations across the company so they have the resources and language and message? 

So that's more from a reactive standpoint. From a proactive standpoint, it's very similar. Where are we integrating our messages across the company? Within our all-employee emails, what communications, channels? We really partner with our security team and our benefits team to plug our matching gifts program, our volunteer time off, in addition mental health benefits, things like that, across our well-being team. 

And so integrating those communications across the company so it's not just one voice screaming into the void. We're really bringing each other up. That's been a huge, huge support of galvanizing 8,000 employees. 

SAM CAPLAN: Authentic employee engagement is key to getting these programs off the ground. And as important as it is to have the philosophical framework to underpin your efforts, good fundamental mechanics are essential. Specifically, these mechanics need to make space for employees to bring their own unique capabilities and values to the table. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: We have our traditional programs. Volunteering, we offer 40 hours of paid time to volunteer globally, which is incredible. And we actually increased that time frame from three days to 40 hours in 2020. And this might be surprising, but we actually just launched matching gifts. It's barely a year old. 

We've had a really strong culture of giving, despite having that incentive to match employees' donations. But bringing on that program, really encouraging and supporting the causes that our employees care about, has been a cornerstone and foundation of our employee engagement. And I'm really proud to have open, flexible programs. 

And I think we're going on our fifth or sixth annual global giving challenge campaign this winter, and we encourage all employees to donate. And you would expect that the majority would be for one charity, the bulk of the funds are going towards that, but it's really over 2,000 causes that are all different across the gamut, and that speaks to the million data points of our employees and what they truly care about. 

The other pieces of employee engagement that we look at are really tapping into the unique talents and skills of our Splunkers. So data science, data analytics, data visualization, all the amazing things that, when I walk down the halls of our offices, I'm like, what are you guys working on? 

Can we bring that to the nonprofit sector and support organizations, further their missions using that incredible skills and talent? So we're reinventing our skills-based program, really tying it back to our mission of bridging the data divide. And then we also offer opportunities throughout the year for folks to engage. 

SAM CAPLAN: As much as employees want to participate, they need options that fit within their personal and professional lives. Splunk works to give every employee a way in. And the great thing is once people take that first step, it can kick off a virtuous cycle. The more they get involved, the more involved they want to be. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: Whether you have time to sit at your kitchen table and put together a kit for a local hospital, or you can take a walk for an hour and fundraise, support the cause, or donate your own funds and get that matched by Splunk, we offer so many different ways for folks to engage in what feels right for them. We know our employees, some are working really, really hard on those engineering sprints. 

Others have family or are taking care of parents at home. So providing opportunities where it could be a 15-minute or a 30 or a deeper connection. Really that menu, that's the gateway. That's how we get sticky. And it's phenomenal to see employees have those early experiences, and the feedback of, wow, this was transformational. How can I do more? How can I lead this for my team or our department? 

And that's, I think, a great example of not only our culture, but the autonomy of our programs, where, again, find a parade. I'm getting front of it. Yes, I'm supporting you. Because one thing I didn't mention is we're still a pretty small and mighty team. I started at the company when we were around 2,500 employees and we now have almost 8,000 around the world. Still just me, a full-time employee. Our team has grown this way, not quite this way, horizontally. 

So to be able to create programs that can scale and move and stretch with your company's growth, that's really key. And something that I think about when building or iterating is, what's going to happen when I'm gone? Not that I want to leave Splunk. I love this company. 

But what if I win the lottery, or what if our CEO gives me four head counts someday? How can I create programs that someone else can run and manage and really lead? Or are the programs really scaling when we have 10,000, 15,000 employees? Will we still need someone manually having to approve matching gifts requests? 


 Hi, I’m Mark from Submittable. We know that CSR professionals are in a unique position to drive companies forward. But in some ways, the role can be a bit lonely. You often have one foot in the corporate world and one in the philanthropic. And it’s your job to bring them together. That’s why we think it’s so important for the social impact sector to connect and share knowledge. This September, we’re hosting our Impact Studio Conference, where we’ll explore how we can channel the momentum built over the last few years and create lasting change. More details are coming soon—stay tuned.

SAM CAPLAN: Part of defining your CSR mission as a company is tapping into your strength as a business and leveraging the processes and relationships you already have in place. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: One of my favorite quotes is from Gavin Belson from the show Silicon Valley on HBO. And he says, I don't know about you people, but I don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do. And I think that just brings together the sentiment of corporate philanthropy and this competitiveness amongst each other. But at the end of the day, why not our company? Why not us to make the world a better place? 

But we can't do it alone. So there are definitely barriers, but when I think about our SaaS, Software as a Service, peers in the Valley-- the Okta, the Twilio, the Palo Alto networks, PagerDuty Salesforce. We have a really unique peer networking system where we are learning from each other. We're developing cohorts. We're piloting and we're testing. And I think that's really unique to the technology sector because that's what we do every day. That's what our engineers do. That's what our product developers do. 

SAM CAPLAN: Tapping into your unique value as a team and a company enables you to deepen your impact. The Splunk team's technical expertise allows them to create solutions that get to the real root of the problem, not just the symptoms. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: So something that's pretty unique about our team-- I mentioned the origin story of Splunk for Good, which is now Global Impact. They've always had full-time engineers dedicated to advancing our product for the social sector. So we have two amazing engineers on our team, and they've been working really diligently over the past year, maybe 18 months. 

They just recently wrapped up this project for an organization called LCWINS. It's the Leadership Council for Women in National Security. And their mission is to uplift more women in the security field, because the data shows that the gender disparity is very large. And it's a really unique use case in that they're using Splunk as the data repository for thousands of really amazing professional women so they can get connected to mentors or speaking opportunities or provide new opportunities to grow their career. 

And this is really something that not only does it support our focus on bridging the data divide, enabling this organization to speed up their processes of reviewing resumes, it's uplifting careers in security, which we need, and also tapping into that amazing talent. And the real beauty is that it's scalable. Other organizations can use this, this design of how we're using our Splunk product. So that's one that I'm particularly excited about, in terms of women in security, especially national security. 

SAM CAPLAN: As you deepen and widen your efforts, you want to think about how all the different pillars of your program fit into your overarching mission. Make an effort to find the through line of your work, the connective tissue that ties all your efforts together. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: One of the areas that I'm really excited about and working on is connecting our brand new grantmaking program with our Splunk experts, our Splunk volunteers. So not only are we funding organizations with much needed capacity-building, unrestricted grants, which I'm super proud about-- what are the ways that we can connect and inject our Splunk expertise to support them? So this could look like organizations, whether it's their own traditional IT ops and security programs through our product donation program, or using Splunk and really different and unique ways, like I mentioned, that LCWINS example. 

So we're just beginning this new journey for year two of our grant-making, but what's really exciting is that we've built in this new accelerator pipeline of really exciting organizations that are just on the forefront of using data to map brownfields in local communities, or understand labor markets in Africa and Latin America, some of these huge challenges that seem like you just can't get your hands around, but enabling them with our Splunk product, employee expertise, and funding to supercharge that, their missions. Coming back the next year, we offer multiyear funding. How can we expand that partnership and do more? 

So it's almost like I consider a little bit of a VC, social impact VC. Where can I make good investments, really garner that SROI, the social return on investment, and what does that mean, and how can I bring that to more organizations? So again, we're just on our journey, our second year, but I'm really excited about that iteration of the program. 

SAM CAPLAN: In this era of employee activism and advocacy, Employee Resource Groups, where ERGs, present an incredible opportunity for both employers and employees. These groups offer an important space for collaboration, exploration, and professional development, but they only work if corporate leaders invest the necessary time and resources. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: And I think sometimes ERGs can be thought of as a nice to have or culture building, and kind of that warm, fuzzy, when in reality, they are so integral to how our company operates, not only from the people and expertise that they bring-- we've had our disabled and true ERG help redesign products, our Splunk products, so folks with sight imparities could access the product better. 

And I think that lens of how can our ERGs continue to not only drive our people but our business, that's the corporate tie-in. I'm really proud of the connection of our social impact programs and our ERGs. And one example of a few-- one example I can share is our new strategic grant-making. We have our beautiful program. Everything is lovely. We haven't had our diversity team or our ERG leaders chime in and consult. And goes back to my point of bringing folks along on the journey, getting their buy-in, their feedback on the direction that you're taking so they can help advance your work, as well. 

And the feedback that we got was really great. And I'll share that some of our ERG leaders didn't agree with our direction because they wanted us to do more. And I'm sitting here in the background being like, yes, we should. But at the same time, we're new on our journey. We are educating and re educating and we're dipping our toes in the pond. As a company, it might not be our position to take on a certain subject because we're not subject matter experts yet. 

So what are the areas that we can continue to learn and support others who are those experts? And then with our employee resource groups, we absolutely support them and the causes that matter most to them. And I think an area I'm really proud is that connection of, how can we tap into our resources-- our volunteer time off, our matching gifts program-- to really elevate the causes that they're celebrating and supporting? 

SAM CAPLAN: The world of corporate social responsibility is full of feel-good success stories, but the truth is mistakes are part of the journey. That's how you learn, grow, and evolve. Being transparent about these moments helps everyone do better. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: We've made tons of mistakes. I've made so many mistakes in my career, and I think that's great. They're learning opportunities. I fumble and I pick up the pieces and do better next time. And one thing I really value about this network in CSR career is that we're all learning from each other, as well. 

One of the examples that I did early in my career, which facepalm, I was putting together a global volunteer event. So every site had a different event. It was sustainability related. And in the US, it's very common for us to host beach cleanups or litter cleanups in your local communities. 

And so I went to each site and I said, here's what you're going to do. I made it so easy for you. You're welcome. Look how great I am. And I get the feedback from one of our international sites that litter cleanup is actually seen more of a rehabilitation practice that folks who maybe broke the rules do. So we're not having our leaders go do this. 

And that total fail of cultural competency, coming from the anthropologist, I was mortified and so embarrassed. And what I learned was bring people in on your journey, whether it's that RACI, who's getting consulted, who's informed, who's responsible or accountable? The more voices you can bring to the table is only going to strengthen your programs. 

SAM CAPLAN: As Patricia has seen in her work at Splunk, the future of CSR hinges on transparency and accountability. Social impact professionals need to think about how to build and maintain trust with employees and the community. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: This focus on individuality, meeting the employee where they're at, what matters to them. So many companies now have open choice programs, which I think is an absolute best practice. And this next generation of accessibility to information, looking at brand recognition and influencers. I think there's such an opportunity to increase our level of activism and social impact, and I've seen that. 

At the flip side, there's so much misinformation, which I think can be dangerous. So ensuring that companies who stakeholders look to-- I mean, Edelman Trust Barometer companies-- we're not going away in terms of the trust that we are building with our stakeholders and the demand for authentic real information. As a CSR practitioner, that is so important to keep in mind. 


SAM CAPLAN: Though it's necessary to think broadly about CSR as a company initiative, you never want to forget to account for what's happening at the individual level. With that, let's return for a moment to Alexander Fleming and his penicillin-filled Petri dish. In reality, one of the most groundbreaking medical discoveries of the 20th century happened by accident. 

The mold that stopped the bacterial growth, that wasn't supposed to be there. Fleming left the window open in his lab when he went on vacation. That's how the dish became contaminated. There's something in that strange luck that mirrors what it's like to run CSR programs. Sometimes this work is not about aiming for a specific outcome, it's about creating the right conditions for change and being open to what comes. 

PATRICIA TOOTHMAN: Advice that I would offer for the next generation of CSR practitioners would be look around. Get started now. These roles are, at the core, leadership roles, whether you have that job title or not. I shared I lead a lot without formal authority. I can't tell people what to do, but I can tell them why I need them to do it and what we can accomplish together. 

So tactically, look across your campus, your current company. Are there opportunities where you can raise your hand, step up, lead an event, organize a fundraiser, reach out to the team? Is there research that you can do or an ERG that you can lead? 

Getting that experience is so helpful, and there's been multiple peers that I know that started out in that kind of hey, this looks really interesting, how can I get involved, and have moved over. If you are early in your career, it's corporate, learn the fundamentals of business. I learned nonprofit financials in my first job, which was key. But if I had the 101 class, that would have helped me a little bit faster. 

The last piece I'd share is communication. I lean on this skill every minute of the day, whether I'm presenting to executives, presenting to a town hall, writing a Slack message, sending an email to my boss or on behalf of my boss. That business communication is so key, because if people don't understand what you're trying to do or what you're trying to accomplish they're not going to pay attention and you'll get ignored. So having strong communication is really key in what we do. 


SAM CAPLAN: Thanks for listening. We hope this episode helps you make deeper connections and get everyone on board. To hear more conversations like this, be sure to subscribe to Impact Audio. And stay tuned for more details about our Impact Studio Conference—coming this fall. Until next time.  


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Impact Audio features short conversations (and a few longer ones) with social impact experts and practitioners. We cover the world of philanthropy, nonprofits, corporate citizenship, and social change.