Product, Service & Design Innovation
Adventure for Good:
Cotopaxi's New CIO on Truly Integrated, Effective Philanthropy

Last month I did a feature interview with Davis Smith, CEO of outdoor gear and apparel company Cotopaxi, and was impressed with the way the brand had managed to build sustainability and social responsibility into its business model.

Cotopaxi continues to augment its potential for impact: The company recently announced a grant partnership with Polartec®, called Adventure for Good — created to reward individuals who have shown exceptional dedication to a social cause through volunteer commitments. For those who incorporate a social mission within their exploration, the grant will provide a $3,000 contribution to the trip, $1,000 in outdoor gear and apparel, and donate a further $2,000 to the winner’s favorite nonprofit.

Cotopaxi and Polartec are not strangers to working together. Polartec’s textile innovations —engineered for lightweight, insulated and weather-resistant clothing — make it an ideal supplier for Cotopaxi, which strives for long-lasting “Gear for Good.” A range of Cotopaxi’s products are made from Polartec Power Stretch® fabric and Polartec Alpha Insulation.

“Polartec and Cotopaxi have aligning goals, to create long-lasting products while limiting our industry’s impact on the environment without compromising on high performance,” said Darren Josey, North American Marketing Manager at Polartec. “Through collaborations with Cotopaxi and others, we’ve worked together to increase the use of recycled fabrics like Alpha and Power Stretch, turning 1 billion plastic water bottles into highly desirable outdoor gear.

Brands, using their power for good ...

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“It’s a start, but we still have a long way to go with more than 40 billion water bottles being tossed in the trash this year in the US alone. This is exactly why Polartec has decided to support Cotopaxi’s ‘Adventure for Good,’ together we can reduce the impact our industry has on natural resources, create more stewards of the outdoors, and research additional ways to preserve the planet we love to explore.”

Along with the launch of the new partnership, Cotopaxi also announced the addition of Chief Impact Officer Lindsey Kneuven, who will oversee the brand’s social impact, steer its philanthropic strategy and grant making, enhance its engagement with nonprofit partnerships and strengthen the role of social impact within the company’s Questival event series.

“We are thrilled for this next phase of growth for the company,” Smith said in a statement. “Lindsey’s experience in the nonprofit world and in directing businesses in their social giving strategies will allow us to fulfil our commitment to helping eliminate extreme poverty. We are looking to her to act as a spokesperson for our brand and as a voice for those that we have committed to helping in the developing world.”

I asked Kneuven about her new role and where she’d like to take Cotopaxi from here forward.

What attracted you to joining Cotopaxi as their new CIO?

LK: I love developing models and realizing bold visions. Cotopaxi’s impact model is still in its infancy, which is exciting. I saw a chance to shape a truly integrated philanthropy program, build a foundation that would enable significant and meaningful giving, shape nonprofit partnerships, engage the outdoor community in global philanthropy, and collaborate with other companies looking to engrain social impact into their work. I’m personally and professionally focused on global poverty alleviation, so Cotopaxi’s mission and values resonated deeply with me. I spend my free time adventuring, traveling and exploring the wild. The fact that Cotopaxi is an outdoor gear company with awesome products and a social mission was just too serendipitous to pass up.

What aspects of Cotopaxi’s social impact have impressed you to date?

LK: At Cotopaxi, philanthropy is core to the business. I have been impressed by the way social impact goals are infused into daily operations and are an authentic driver of strategic decisions. It’s fantastic to see social outcome projections positioned alongside business goals. Across the board, team members demonstrate their commitment to the model daily and actively live the values. During my first week on the job, we had a team volunteer event at a local community garden to support Real Food Rising. Team volunteer events are a frequent occurrence at Cotopaxi, which is a great illustration of the purpose-driven culture. Sustainability and ethical practices are also integrated into the impact strategy as well as the design philosophy — making these components organization-wide priorities.

What are some preliminary ideas that you hope to drive and implement in your new role?

LK: I am working to clarify our approach to poverty alleviation and how our strategy is actualized through our focus areas and chosen poverty indicators. Once our approach is crystalized, we will be equipped to effectively track and analyze our impact while engaging customers and non-profit partners in deeper, more meaningful ways. I will also be working to streamline and strengthen the social impact component of our events series through strategic non-profit partnerships.

You’ve had a wealth of experience, both within the developing world and working with businesses in the US — what are some of the key lessons that will help you maximize your impact in companies such as Cotopaxi?

LK: My background in the international development sector affords me an unique perspective on the needs non-profits face, where there are opportunities for increased efficacy, the disconnects that often exist between grantors and grantees, and the priorities grantees hold dear as they work to become sustainable and scale their models. Working in corporate philanthropy has demonstrated the power of integrated models and how companies can effectively leverage their significant, global resources to affect major social change.

A few key lessons include:

  • Evaluating your giving opportunities as you would an investment portfolio - assess the strategy, leadership, financials, programs, outcomes, etc, all with care and rigor.
  • Maintaining a sharp focus on outcomes is essential when assessing the social impact of your philanthropic investment.
  • Identifying non-profit partners that have the capacity to scale with you and that possess strong monitoring and evaluation systems is critical.
  • I’m a strong believer in community-centered models that cultivate local leadership; companies should be striving to find solutions that have the potential to address root issues, scale and sustain beyond the grant funding.
  • Developing open lines of communication with grantees is essential to understanding their challenges, needs, successes and helping both parties remain nimble so funding can be maximized. I once had a grantee miss a reporting deadline that was required for the release of the second round of funding; it turned out that elephants had trampled their village and their project area had been destroyed. Transparent communication enabled us to collaborate and pivot to achieve our mutual goals.

How do you recommend businesses effectively and holistically incorporate a social impact cause into their business model?

LK: To effectively incorporate social impact into your model, it’s important to have leadership buy-in and create a model that is relevant to your business. Make sure that establishing a culture of giving is authentic and really driven by the passion of your leadership and team. Not every business is equipped to incorporate a foundation or giving program, but I think it is a great goal and one that can be approached stepwise. I recommend assessing your resources and determining how your strengths can be applied to the problems that you wish to tackle. Integrating social impact holistically requires you to think through how your people, products and profits can be leveraged for good. Engage in conversations with non-profits to ensure your philanthropy is relevant and that your giving is enabling the outcomes you wish to see.

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