Corporate philanthropy: Giving, and getting back

“Growing Up Healthy” is a five-year, $5 million initiative of the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation to combat childhood obesity.Ask Karen Voci, executive director of the foundation, why it chose to focus resources on one issue, and she will tell you that obesity is the top health issue of our generation, causing chronic disease and impacting our economy. And, if we don’t address it, she says, “all of our region’s investments in education and economic development are threatened – chronically ill young adults are significantly less likely to finish college or succeed on the job.”The foundation, with offices in Bedford, strategically plans its giving and employee volunteer service to align with its distinct corporate culture, she says.Voci’s team plans annual employee service, provides a $500 “9/11 Community Spirit Mini-Grant” for each employee to designate to a local nonprofit of their choice each year and supports one day off for volunteering per employee each year.Harvard Pilgrim grants support to existing local leaders and programs that have proven results.”In New Hampshire,” explains Voci, “we have worked with Catch Kids Club for years – they know how to get kids active and eating healthy both after school and in the community. We are thrilled to help them continue to expand so that more kids can benefit.””Corporate philanthropy” is business-speak for how companies become part of the community fabric – using financial and human resources to improve local, regional, national, even global, solutions. From the billions that the Gates Foundation has spent on disease eradication to local yearbook ads purchased by convenience stores, this engagement in society makes a difference.A 2010 survey of 184 companies – 63 among Fortune’s top 100 – by The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy reported total giving of $15 billion in cash donations and product. ‘The right thing to do’How do smaller companies choose to make a difference? Most do not have foundation assets overseen by a board of trustees, but do try to be supportive and relevant in their communities and with their customers and clients.Lisa Snow Wade, president of Concord’s Orr & Reno, a law firm whose roots date back to the 19th century, says that her firm gives to the community because “it’s just the right thing to do.” Orr & Reno’s website lists more than 40 organizations supported by the firm and Wade points out that this is just a “sample” of their contributions. Beyond financial donations, Orr & Reno has a stated expectation that its attorneys will be involved – “from coaching Little League to serving on the board of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, we want you to pursue what interests you, to bring your passion to what you do to serve the community,” says Wade.It is no secret that partnership evaluations take local volunteer service into account.Wade chairs the firm’s management committee, which determines how annual contributions budget will be distributed, bringing her experience from the United Way of Merrimack County’s allocations committee.”We want to help as many organizations as possible in issue areas across the board — the arts, education, social services, the environment — and we need to know that the organizations we support have a serious commitment to the best use of funds,” she says.A competitive online retail market has not dampened Ted McGreer’s enthusiasm for providing local community support. The owner of Ted’s Shoe & Sport in downtown Keene provides products, gift certificates and cash to support a variety of organizations.”As the owner of a Main Street store I am very visible. I have 10 to 12 people a day walk in and ask for a donation, and I will ask my employee committee to consider each of them.” McGreer tapped his Rotary Club experience to bring greater focus to his giving, adopting a set of criteria defining programs that a giving committee would and would not consider supporting.In 2006, McGreer was recognized with the Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year Award for his encompassing local support – and in particular for spearheading a Rotarian volunteer effort to assess and respond to horrific flood damage in Alstead. McGreer focuses his support on youth programs and determines an appropriate budget each year. As a business owner he can also be flexible in how he supports organizations, occasionally dedicating a percentage of a day’s sales to a particular organization. McGreer makes no secret of his belief that community involvement is a two-way street.Whether it’s millions or hundreds, dollars or discounts, companies should determine which issues they want to connect with in the community, define the process they’ll follow and communicate it clearly.Being candid about why support may or may not be forthcoming clarifies priorities and saves time. Nobody likes to be turned down, but if done with a reason and respectful delivery, most people will understand and still patronize a company.As Ted McGreer says, “Sure, I’ll ask people I don’t recognize who come in here to ask for a gift certificate where they buy their cleats or running shoes. But I’ve had customers shop here because they’ve seen I support certain causes – we all need to think about the give and take that strengthens a local place.”SidebarTips for effective philanthropy • Choose specific regions and issues to support: Define a geographic region that includes your customers. Prioritize an issue that aligns with your business expertise and employee passion. Harvard Pilgrim’s Karen Voci knows that the “what and for whom” drives interest and involvement. Companies with a specific niche should consider a tight focus, companies with a variety of clients or customers – like Orr & Reno – should consider a broader set of issues for greater connection to community interests. • Set a budget: Some companies dedicate a percentage of pre-tax profit – 1 to 2 percent is common. Others dedicate funds as they would other operational expenses. • Define a process: In addition to agreeing upon how much money you will contribute and to whom, codify your decision-making approach so you can easily communicate to those who request support what they need to do and when. Ted’s Shoe & Sport has an online application, specific criteria and a committee that makes decisions. • Articulate an employee role: Do you have a committee? A foundation board? A sole proprietor who makes the decisions? Define this role as you determine your process for considering contributions. Involvement fosters buy-in. • Assess impact: How will you know if your gift made a difference? Depending upon your level of support you may ask the organization to provide a report. • Put eyes and ears on the ground: Ask the organizations you support for broader employee engagement opportunities – clean up days, food drives, etc. to better connect your staff with the organization’s mission. Consider recruiting a staff member to an open board seat at the organization.