05/25/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Hope Is Universal: A Conversation With Chevron's Head of Social Investment

Matt Lonner grew up in San Francisco and took his first job in high school selling shoes to business men in the financial district. Today he oversees the global philanthropy program of the third largest company in America and works to impact the lives of people around the world. Matt and I recently spoke about his career and vision for the future of corporate philanthropy.

What was your first job?

I've been working full-time since I was 17 and I worked full-time through college selling shoes. I sold wing tips to business men in the financial district. It was so foreign to my experience. I didn't grow up in a professional family so encountering affluent middle aged "suits" as I perceived them was a real culture shift. I found it to be pretty mind blowing.

You've come a long way. You are now working with people with similar backgrounds through the Chevron Social Investment Program, helping them to live healthy and meaningful lives. What have you learned from your own experience?

In the barrios of Caracas, I met kids who walk two hours or more to school every day. Despite considerable obstacles, in the classroom, they were every bit as engaged as my children are, and as hopeful of a limitless future for themselves.

We have a program called Project Lead the Way here in East Bay, which provides a rigorous project-based curriculum focused on engineering. I was in a Project Lead the Way classroom a few months ago, and when the classroom bell rang for class to end, these kids were so focused not one student got up to leave. I don't know about you but when I was in school I remember watching the clock tick down the final seconds until we were released. To harness that level of motivation, one has to identify kids who have a passion and provide them with the resources to develop it by exposing them to careers in our industry, or careers in STEM. We can't "solve world poverty," but we can work with individuals to increase their options. In my experience, meaningful options are the key to unleashing all that "human energy" and increase the prospects for successful lives. So, the question is, how do you take the intense desire of every person to improve their lives, provide those options and help create a support structure for those who would otherwise fall through the cracks?

In addition to funding programs to increase individual capacity, Chevron has made investments in building the capacity of the social sector.

The distinction between helping a student or micro-entrepreneur to improve her life and helping the organization improve how it operates is really two sides of the same coin.

Our pro bono work in the Bay Area with Bread Project is a terrific example of helping to build organizational capacity. So you've got a nonprofit that has become effective in its mission to train individuals with barriers to employment in the baking industry and achieve meaningful employment. The Bread Project's core competency was their underlying mission, and where they needed help was in developing a strategic plan to enable them to take the next step to be a self-sustaining social enterprise. It's very much a parallel story to helping individuals build their own capacity -- promoting sustainable livelihoods via sustainable organizations. So I actually view them very similarly.

What advice do you have for someone right out of college looking to get into corporate philanthropy and CSR?

You have to have fairly well-honed strategic skills, strong project management skills and you're dealing with significant resources, so having some background in finance and management is important. Understanding how to effectively manage resources and put them in play at a community level is critical to understanding this work.

At the end of the day, no matter how much good we at Chevron try to accomplish for our communities and for our company, as stewards of a precious resource, the company's and the shareholders social investment spend, we must hold ourselves accountable and make quality decisions based on performance, recognizing we have to say no far more often than we say yes. So, we constantly challenge ourselves to make sure we are seeking the biggest impact from our social investments.

My grandfather was one of the folks who started the foundation at ExxonMobil back when it was Standard Oil of New Jersey and did much of his work in Caracas as well. How has corporate philanthropy for an energy company changed since my grandfather's days in 1950s?

When I was a kid the definition of "good" business was based on the product and whether it hired folks from the community, paid decent wages and maybe provided some benefits. Over time the definition of what constituted a "responsible company" has grown and expectations for social performance have grown. This now goes beyond corporate citizenship locally, but increasingly includes acting in a responsible manner globally. I am fortunate to work in a company like Chevron that embodies corporate responsibility top to bottom from the way we operate our core business to the way to engage communities.

How about 60 years from now? What will it mean to be a good business?

In a world where there is increasing access to information no matter what corner of the world you live in, you're going to see a greater sense of hope and optimism, and I think it's going to motivate dreams among individuals and in communities that never imagined living in a world larger than they currently occupy.

Accordingly, we have seen and will continue to see business playing a much bigger role, as Chevron is in our fight to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, in contributing to some of the more challenging social issues, using our convening power and leadership to foster multi-stakeholder solutions . We are unencumbered by national geographic boundaries but connected by common interests and desires.

JFK said "Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal." It's my favorite quote because it embodies the recognition that we're all in this together. Business succeeded best in thriving societies. That's why partnership is so important to Chevron.