Case Study: Have a Million Minutes to Give? Northwestern Mutual Employees Did, as a PR-Rich Going-Away Gift for a CEO

Play Day: Northwestern Mutual employees built this playground as part of the Million Minutes Project. It was a gift to the Milwaukee community on behalf of departing CEO Edward J. Zore (inset).  Photo courtesy of Northwestern Mutual

Company: Northwestern Mutual

Timeframe: June - Dec. 2010

CEO retirements are commonplace, and are typically a notation on a press release, a party, gold watch and a set of golf clubs. But when Northwestern Mutual’s longtime chairman and CEO Edward J. Zore decided to retire in 2010, the organization’s communications department knew that “typical” wasn’t good enough.

So Northwestern Mutual decided to honor its long-standing tradition of serving its hometown of Milwaukee by giving to a community that meant so much to Zore a very special gift: time.

Northwestern Mutual commemorated Zore’s community ties by developing “Leaving a Legacy: The Million Minutes Project.” The idea behind the project was strong and clear: Northwestern Mutual would donate 1 million minutes of employee time to nonprofits throughout Milwaukee. All 5,000 employees would be given four hours of paid time off, and be challenged to find a way they could help their community from June 1 through Dec. 31, 2010.

Ultimately, Zore’s departure, coupled with NM’s commitment to the community, created a perfect storm of CSR, internal communications and media relations that would result in a big PR win.


Milwaukee is the fourth-most impoverished city in the U.S., with an unemployment rate of more than 10%. In the first quarter of 2010, NM surveyed employees, revealing a statistically significant link between employees who say that NM is a good corporate citizen and those who were more likely to say that they are proud to work for the company. In the same survey, 95% of NM employees strongly agreed that Northwestern Mutual is a good corporate citizen.

NM also surveyed nonprofits in Milwaukee about their current circumstances and about donation trends in general. Results showed that half felt vulnerable about the future; almost one-third expected to operate at a deficit in the coming year; and about one-third considered merging with another nonprofit.


“We wanted to make sure that whatever we came up with was authentic to the outgoing CEO and to our company, our culture and the stakeholders of Northwestern Mutual,” says Kimberley Crews Goode, VP of communications and corporate affairs at NW.

Zore said early on—in coordination with NM’s mandatory retirement age of 65—that he didn’t want his retirement celebration to be all about him, which Goode says was an interesting challenge considering a retirement really is all about an individual. “We decided to give some thought to how we could turn an ordinary event like a CEO transition into something bigger and more meaningful.”

A 16-person communications team crafted the following specific, measurable objectives for the campaign:

• Commit 1 million volunteer minutes to the greater Milwaukee community.

• Successfully build a playground—in a single day—at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee’s Camp Whitcomb/Mason with help from Kaboom!, a nonprofit dedicated to creating places for kids to play across America.

• Secure media coverage in 80% of targeted local print media; secure media coverage in 50% of targeted local broadcast medial; secure one trade media placement.

Although the concept was simple enough, the Million Minutes Project was a major undertaking that required coordination from several departments, including HR, communications and corporate affairs, information systems, legal, facility operations and the Northwestern Mutual Foundation.


A volunteer intranet was launched that allowed employees to send their personal greetings and congratulations to Zore, as well as to read about some of his accomplishments and look at a timeline of his career.

Employees could also record their volunteer efforts as part of the Million Minutes campaign on this site. To help further promote the project, Northwestern Mutual’s integrated team created cafeteria table tents, T-shirts, videos and produced internal and external news stories that showcased employees’ stories on volunteering.

To launch the project, 200 NM volunteers came together to build a playground on June 1, 2010, at the Milwaukee Boys & Girls Club.

“Since we didn’t need all 5,000 employees out there building one playground, we extended an opportunity for those who identified their own volunteer efforts elsewhere in the community,” says Darryll L. Fortune, director of corporate and public relations for Northwestern Mutual.

After the kickoff event, the remaining 3,800 NM employees volunteered with other nonprofits throughout the community.


The planned departure of an outgoing CEO is not newsworthy in and of itself, so Northwestern Mutual had to find the right hooks to make the creation of the playground a draw for the media. The team’s hooks came in the form of addressing the community’s need for this particular playground; the overwhelming volunteer effort of Northwestern Mutual employees to complete the build in just one day; and the organization’s partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee.

“The physical nature of the playground served as a great visual because it ended up becoming a permanent structure with a lasting effect,” says Fortune.

Northwestern Mutual had a video crew of its own on site to capture key moments throughout the build and to interview key executives, including Zore.

“We created a time-lapse of the playground site from before and after the build, and used our YouTube, Facebook and Twitter channels to get the word out that we were supporting the community in a big way,” says Fortune.


Goode says that alongside all the activity for the Million Minutes campaign the communications team also had to manage the issues surrounding the actual CEO retirement and replacement, such as notifying internal and external stakeholders in the proper business communication sequencing in naming a new CEO.

In addition, to manage client obligations throughout 2010, the HR department had to design a program that ensured all employees, regardless of their work schedule or volunteer interests, had an opportunity to participate.

Goode says she was happy with the results of the Million Minutes program, but if she were to replicate it she would work on finding ways to extend the story outside of the Milwaukee area.

“Since we’re a Milwaukee-based company, we did a great job getting coverage here, but we could have broadened our focus to involve more of our field force,” says Goode, who notes that the organization is certain to extend its PR reach during the next CEO transition.

Results included:

• More than 4,000 employees (80% of the workforce) volunteered just over 1 million minutes to more than 1,120 nonprofit organizations throughout Milwaukee, ranging from schools and food banks to home building and special needs programs.

• In a wrap-up survey of Northwestern Mutual employees, their positive impressions of the company increased to 97%.

• While the time itself was valued at more than $350,000, the impact those minutes had on the community, its leaders and the people of Milwaukee is immeasurable. NM received more than 120 thank-you notes from community leaders.

• All media coverage goals were exceeded.

While the Leaving a Legacy: The Million Minutes Project was associated with the ephemeral event of a CEO retirement, Goode says it not only was a proper fit for both the company’s and the departing CEO’s ideals, but will serve as lasting call to action for Northwestern Mutual and its employees to continue their volunteer efforts and build upon the company’s commitment to the community. PRN


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