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WomanOf the Month 4-05:Susan Corrigan

As the eldest daughter and second of seven children, Susan Corrigan says she’s been a manager since she was about five years old. Today, as a president and chief executive officer, she manages a far more complex operation: Gifts In Kind International, the third-largest charity in the United States and one that is unique in its approach to giving. The organization focuses on product philanthropy, aiding industries and corporations in donating their products and services to non-profits worldwide.

Corrigan grew up in Pittsburgh , Pa. , where both her parents held “exciting careers. I was exposed to women working from early on,apostrophe she recalls. Her mother headed the libraries at Carnegie Mellon University , at that time known as Carnegie Tech, while her father was an attorney. “They brought language into our home, the arts, and everything else that could introduce us to the world at an early age,apostrophe she says. Thanks to her mother’s employment, all seven children attended Carnegie Tech for free tuition.

After college, Corrigan pursued her interest in visual arts in the area of television production. “At that time this was a new field, it was the frontier days,apostrophe she says. “I really learned to tell a story in a short time while making it visually interesting. I also learned how to train through the media.apostrophe Her most exciting job involved work in media resources at the Department of Labor where she was producer/director of films. There she became involved in issues of employment concerning Vietnam veterans, migrant farm workers, individuals whose substance abuse problems prevented them from entering the work force, and more.

Corrigan put her training expertise to work next for the National Alliance of Business, which engages corporations in working with government on job training programs. Then came her move to United Way as assistant to the president, which exposed her to some of the most powerful business leaders in the U.S.

Her position involved strategic planning with the board of directors. “I was very fortunate to work with such heavyweights in the corporate area—Exxon, American Express, United Airlines, Coca-Cola, Prudential—to address critical issues of the day,apostrophe she says.

The seed of Gifts in Kind International was sown when in 1983 3-M Corp. offered office equipment to United Way . Corrigan led management and distribution of the gift. A trucking company shipped the product for free to Federal Express offices, which in turn provided shipping for just $5 an order. The success of the endeavor opened new vistas in product giving, which previously had been limited largely to food product. While United Way thought product philanthropy compelling, it chose not to pursue the idea. Corrigan wanted to take a risk on the concept and left United Way to head up Gifts in Kind. Twenty-two years later, the charity projects giving of some $850 million for 2004, including the U.S. and internationally. “It’s worked because it was a good idea,apostrophe she says. “The key was if the support for the corporations was high quality that they could count on.apostrophe

Corrigan’s strategy focused on excellence. “When beginning an organization, you have to be careful to grow it so that you can manage perfectly every donation. In that first year we had about 10 donations—two really significant ones—and they had to be perfectly done so they could be examples.apostrophe

As corporations saw leaders in their field contribute, they followed suit. Today Gifts in Kind manages donations for IBM, Dell, and HP, among its technology contributors. Another focus is youth, involving product donations of toys, sporting goods, school equipment and materials, as well as technology needs. Two other areas, community services and general services, zero in on needs for emergency situations such as weather, abuse, or loss of job. These products are more basic and include blankets, towels, some medical equipment, and the like.

In the early ‘90s, the board of directors assembled a study of donor companies, specifically detailing where they operated or planned to operate internationally. In 1995 Gifts in Kind completed a strategic plan to expand its services worldwide and in 1999 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave funding for a 10-year effort to achieve that goal. Gifts in Kind condensed the process to five years. Corrigan has provided hands-on training and technical assistance to aid the successful development of the nearly 50 international affiliates. “We’ve found that you have to have local entities with their feet on the ground who understand how to manage and have strong board oversight and connections to the local community,apostrophe says Corrigan. Today Gifts in Kind manages the World Bank International Giving Program. Product donations and services from all givers are channeled through Gifts In Kind’s global distribution system including 450 Gifts In Kind® affiliated programs to a network of over 200,000 qualified non-profits and tens of million of those they serve worldwide.

Corrigan sees no boundaries any more. Outreach to charitable organizations is yielding partnerships with such groups as the Boy and Girls clubs, the Red Cross, and a recent link with the Administration for Native Americans. The latter encourages tribes to receive products, with management structured through a food depository. Thirty-six tribes are involved to date. “Our methodology is to look for clusters where we can work with national non-profits,apostrophe says Corrigan.

Gifts in Kinds’ efficiency is enviable: it operates with just 50 employees at less than 1% value of what it does, notes Corrigan.

In her free time, when she is not traveling, Corrigan loves to spend time with her family. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Office Depot 2005 Visionary Award recognizing women executives for their leadership and achievements. For more information on Gifts in Kind International, go to www.giftsinkind.org.