In our ongoing series featuring leaders in the private sector, corporate citizens who go the extra mile to support their communities and its organizations dedicated to effecting change, we speak with Kevin O’Brien, Chief Business Development Officer, Canada for Aimia (owner of Aeroplan, Canada’s premier coalition loyalty program). O’Brien talks about Aeroplan’s Beyond Miles program, its forward-thinking partnership model and how it’s helping non-profit organizations take greater leaps. We also speak with Beyond Miles program partner, Alexis MacDonald, Director, External Relations at the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) about how Aeroplan’s initiative is giving the organization the extra boost they need to reach their goals.

Tell me about the partnership model developed by Aimia for its Beyond Miles program partners, its uniqueness and how it works.

[Kevin O’Brien] Launched in 2006, Aeroplan’s Beyond Miles program enables members to donate Aeroplan Miles to ten outstanding Canadian not-for-profit organizations and many more charitable causes. Our 10 Beyond Miles Founding Partners are dedicated to improving lives and enriching communities at home and around the world. Aeroplan Members can donate miles online at to the following organizations to help them offset costs related to travel: David Suzuki Foundation, Engineers Without Borders, Free The Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, MusiCounts, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Schools Without Borders, Veterinarians without Borders, War Child Canada and The Air Canada Foundation.

At Aimia, our support of communities and our Beyond Miles partners has evolved to include not only a transaction and learning relationship but also a broader spectrum of more meaningful contributions that benefit all parties; we call this skills-based volunteering. An example of this is our annual Data Philanthropy event in which we gather together a number of our community/charitable partners and use our own data and analytics expertise to help charities solve specific business problems over a period of three days.

Our employees volunteer their time to analyze trends and patterns in the organizations’ data to make recommendations to meaningfully improve their programs. As an example, we had a chance to do this with our partner Engineers Without Borders and found that they were not engaging with University aged volunteers once they joined the workforce as well as how to increase donations in the coming years. Aimia was able to look through the data to develop recommendations on increasing retention of supporters through repeat gifts and helping EWB improve the continuity of their communications.

How does the program help you meet your goals?

[KO] We believe that it is important for Aeroplan to actively give back. Beyond that, one of the things our members value and makes us unique is our members can join with us in using our currency (Aeroplan Miles) and the program’s reward redemptions for good. Before we created the program, we conducted focus groups which told us that our members valued being able to give back in their own lives – their responses led us to create the Beyond Miles program and we found 10 worthy Canadian organizations– and invited members to join us in supporting them. The company and our members feel good about using the program to help improve lives in Canada and around the world.

Can you give me an example of how it’s enabled your partners to achieve their goals?

[KO] Our Beyond Miles partner MusiCounts awards schools with funds for their music programs, and recognizes exceptional efforts of music teachers across Canada. They used to do this from Toronto, but now they stage events in schools across the country, where they present musical instruments and awards in person, accompanied by well-known musicians who speak about the impact of studying music on all important aspects of learning – leadership and teamwork. In 2014, MusiCounts said that Aeroplan Miles saved them $30,000 and translated to six elementary schools receiving instruments for 10-20 years. This is very impactful for youth in Canada and the struggling music programs which are underfunded.

Another great example of skills-based volunteering is that as part of Aimia’s support of communities, we offer our employees an opportunity to engage with our Beyond Miles partners through what we call Common Good Trips. These trips are designed to inspire and educate our employees about the important work our partners are doing and enable them to volunteer. We recently had a team of six employees volunteer their time helping to build a school in Ecuador with our partner Free The Children.

In your opinion, how has corporate support of communities evolved over the years, in line with this initiative?

[KO] Many more companies are taking a more strategic approach to community involvement. I would like to hope that every business, large or small, sees a need to support something, and beyond just writing a cheque. There is an expectation on the part of employees that the business gives back, and many more creative approaches have emerged. For example, we just launched an exciting employee ambassador program with all 10 Beyond Miles partners. Aimia colleagues have volunteered to work with these charitable partners throughout the year with the goal to learn about their work and how best Aimia can help. These ambassadors are working with our Beyond Miles partners to identify opportunities where Aimia’s assets and expertise can be leveraged throughout the year.

What does your model and its successes say about the potential for private-public partnerships on a global scale?

[KO] Look at the companies spread across major cities throughout Canada. Picture all of the people in these companies who are really good at their job. If everyone or every company found a way to take what they are good at and apply it in a community based opportunity, imagine what we could help achieve. This is the spirit we’re trying to foster at Aimia.

How has the Beyond Miles program enabled you to achieve your goals?

[Alexis MacDonald]: In 2006 the Stephen Lewis Foundation formed a unique and important partnership with the Aeroplan Beyond Miles programme and, to date, over 62 million miles have been donated for our use – a staggering and humbling amount. It is no exaggeration to say that these miles have been critical to the Foundation’s work with the grassroots organizations turning the tide of AIDS in Africa. They allow our field representatives to travel throughout the continent to visit the projects with whom we work, and to bring community-based workers together to share their expertise and experience on everything from psychosocial counseling to orphan care.

Donated Aeroplan Miles are also used to bring African leaders – women who are the heart of the response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa – to share their experiences and expertise on what it takes to fostering growth and resilience in people’s lives, and for the community as a whole.

Why does this collaboration mean so much to the work you do?

[AM]: An example of the importance of this partnership is the Foundation’s upcoming Ask Her Talks, which will take place in May 2015 in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Audiences in each city will have the opportunity to hear directly from five African women – all experts and frontline workers in their communities and beyond – about philanthropy, power and change on the continent. Not only does the Beyond Miles program allow us to fly the speakers to Canada without using precious funds, it also gives us the opportunity to work closely with our Beyond Miles Ambassador, Francine Sternthal, Aimia’s Director of Reward Marketing Solutions.

Francine’s role as Ambassador allows her to mobilize internal company skills and in-kind resources to support the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s work, and her assistance is integral to the successful execution of initiatives like the Ask Her Talks. And therein lies the true magic of the Beyond Miles program. It goes far beyond the miles and is so much more than a simple charitable contribution. It is a real partnership; one that measures its success by the long-term impact on the work of the Foundation’s partners in Africa.

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