Corporate philanthropy expands beyond dollars

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Five hundred people attended ERA Shield’s “Expression of Hope” art show, which raised $40,000 to send children with muscular dystrophy to camp.

No matter how small or large, companies say philanthropy is smart business — and part of being a responsible corporate citizen.
“It’s definitely a very important part of who we are as a company,” said Bill Hurt, founder of ERA Shields Real Estate. “We’re very lucky, and we’ve been blessed with an exceptional, bountiful quality of life. Not everyone enjoys this same level, so we want to help those who are not as fortunate.”
The idea that business is an active “corporate” citizen is not new in the United States. While in the past, businesses focused solely on giving money, research shows a trend toward encouraging employees to become involved in the community.
“This relatively new development in corporate social responsibility has many features that are attractive,” said David Logan in a report for the Center for the Study of Philanthropy in New York City.
“Employee community involvement is a step toward the democratization of corporate philanthropy. It allows ordinary workers … to determine priorities and thereby creates grass roots links between the business and the communities. Employees become the ambassadors of the company.”
Corporate donations increased 14 percent last year, to $8.4 billion, according to a survey conducted by the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy. The survey found that the median amount donated rose from $33.4 million in 2004 to $38.2 million in 2005, while giving per employee increased from $670 to $685, despite a 9 percent increase in the median number of employees.
Some of the increased giving was attributed to donations to help victims of last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes, with 86 companies reporting they had contributed a total of more than $300 million.
ERA Shields recently held its first event aimed at funding a camp for children with spinal muscular atrophy.
Hurt said the first “Expression of Hope” benefit art show raised twice as much as had been anticipated. Getting involved with the MDA group was a good choice, he said.
“This was our first fund-raising event,” Hurt said. “And it went really well. We had some people who had a connection with spinal muscular atrophy, friends and family with the disease. We brought in 14 artists from the region and expected 200 people. Instead, we had 500 people and raised $40,000 – we sent a bunch of kids to camp.”
Eighty-seven percent of all companies surveyed in 2005 said they had at least one formal volunteer program, with 44 percent offering paid time off to employees who volunteer.
While the art event was the company’s first large fundraiser, ERA Shields also encourages employees to become involved in the community.
“We have people involved with TESSA, with Big Brothers/Big Sisters,” he said. “As an office, we adopt families at holiday time. It’s important to us to give back. And it’s not just about the dollars, although the dollars are important. But at some point, you have to roll up your sleeves and do what’s necessary to help out – get involved with planning – that makes your efforts more effective.”
That effort is echoed by larger corporations, who give large donations and encourage employees to give their time and effort to Colorado nonprofit groups.
Wells Fargo is a national corporation, but decisions about charitable giving are made at the local level, said Cristie Drumm, the bank’s spokeswoman for Colorado.
“At the state level last year, we donated $4.5 million to 1,000 organizations,” she said. “That’s a 12 percent increase over 2004. We’re really excited to be able to do that.”
Not only does Wells Fargo contribute dollars to nonprofits across the state, the company also contributes its people, she said.
“Our team members worked 125,000 hours at Colorado charities,” she said. “We have about 6,000 team members in the state, and we’re in roughly 55 different communities, so our efforts are pretty spread out.”
Why encourage local involvement? It’s just good business sense, Drumm said.
“We’re in business and we want to do everything we can to build a strong, healthy community,” she said. “If our community isn’t strong, then our business can’t be strong.”
Employees enjoy working for a company that encourages outside, community involvement, she said. Wells Fargo is involved in Colorado Springs at several different levels, including sponsoring the Peter Max exhibit at the Fine Arts Center.
Volunteer and corporate donations are a value-added aspect of corporate citizenship, Logan said. By volunteering in their communities, companies can “deploy” cash, in-kind goods, and the time and skills of their employees.
Companies have always maintained charitable contributions, but the trend of encouraging employees to volunteer has gained popularity in the last 30 years, he said.
“At USAA, it isn’t new,” Vice President Vic Andrews said. “We have a culture of giving as part of our corporate culture. It’s always been part of the way we do business.”
Money for philanthropy comes from the USAA Foundation, he said. The foundation manages money and provides gifts to local charities. The banking and insurance company focuses giving on local charities in the cities where it is located.
USAA appoints a committee that meets monthly to review requests. The company has historically supported the Boys & Girls Club, the YMCA, Tessa and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), he said.
“We pretty much keep to Colorado Springs and El Paso County,” Andrews said. “Part of our corporate culture is to make communities great places to live. So we’ve been very generous, we try to give back in so many ways.”