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Corporate philanthropy made simple


Foundations helping businesses make the most impact of their community giving

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

If you’re a small company on a shoestring, you might feel magnanimous at giving a local charity a small donation. And maybe a second.

 But before long, you’ve got an endless queue of pompon squads, dandelion preservation societies and Save the Mosquitoes at your door. And the polite, “Would you care to give” inquiries begin to sound like “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”

 Piles of requests, pressure to donate and the time commitment involved in vetting charitable requests and cutting checks can be daunting. So is there a way to manage your company’s charitable efforts without becoming the Grinch who stole Christmas?


Eat the elephant one bite at a time

The old adage about how you eat a pachyderm can apply to doing good. You don’t need a humongous endowment to make a difference in your community, say some small business owners and foundation representatives.

“Many times a small business can’t dole out money, but if you can hook up with a charity, your business can provide volunteers to work as a team to help your community,” said Bonita Graff, CEO and co-owner of Provident Financial Consultants of Oshkosh.

Provident allows an employee to staff the Oshkosh Area Community Pantry weekly for a morning.

“If you do it a little bit at a time over time, it’s not painful,” Graff said. “We don’t have anything physical to donate like fishing tackle for the sporting banquet or anything. All we have is our services and our employees’ time.”

Provident also supports Oshkosh Celebration of Lights community nights, allowing free entry on certain evenings.

For businesses with dress codes, offering “jeans days” wherein employees pay a few bucks for the privilege of wearing jeans to work can help raise funds, too, said Graff.

Provident holds jeans days the last Friday of each month, setting aside the proceeds for charitable giving. “If employees want to wear jeans, they can, but it costs them.”

Other ideas

Companies might consider matching, up to a certain amount, employee donations to qualified nonprofits.

“Even small gifts turn into big gifts when each employee gives,” said Karlene Grabner, director of donor services for the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation. “It adds up.”

OptiVision LLC employees learned this recently. Several years ago, they decided that buying their doctors a bottle of wine or a tie wasn’t doing much long-lasting good beyond making their bosses smile. So the vision correction clinic set up a fund at the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation.

“You can set up an acorn fund for $500 and keep contributing to that, and when it reaches $10,000, it’s mature and you can start making grants,” said Cherri Vierthaler, marketing director for OptiVision. “All the interest that is spun off the fund is what you can spend every year on something philanthropic.”

They thought it would take forever to reach $10,000, but it didn’t, especially when the doctors offered to match employee contributions.

“It took only four years to hit $10,000,” Vierthaler said. “Now we’re able to start doing something with the interest spun off.”

This past spring, OptiVision helped kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Oshkosh get eyeglasses.

“Dr. (Stephen) Dudley went to the club and did vision screening, and we used our fund money to pay for glasses for these children,” Vierthaler said. “It’s been amazing.”

Their efforts have been credited with improving academics. One teacher told them one boy is a better student now because he can see. “All this time he just needed glasses,” Vierthaler said.

They’d thought they’d stop giving once their fund hit $10,000. But the employees didn’t want to.

“They want to keep giving to it,” Vierthaler said. “They love the idea. The concept was ‘Why not create something that isn’t a bottle of wine or a tie, but will live on forever?’”

Narrow your focus

You played guard on your high school basketball team, so you want to support them. But your neighbor’s daughter is going on a mission trip to Hawaii, your brother-in-law is a veteran, and Fran from your church pancake breakfast has a grandniece with a cleft palate.

“You feel obligated,” said Kurt Gruett, president of Water-Right, Inc., an Appleton-based provider of commercial and residential clean water systems.

Pick an area of focus: If you say yes to everybody, pretty soon you won’t have a business left to make money to give next year. You can’t be everything to everyone, so figure out what you care about.

“When you dig into it, you find that each donor or company has a very clear pathway on what they are passionate about,” said the foundation’s Grabner. “What they’re passionate about usually has a really strong flavor, whether it’s the arts, drug and alcohol abuse, women, kids, agriculture, the waterways.”

OptiVision’s target of helping the needy to see better illustrates that point.

Likewise for Provident Financial, which in addition to its volunteer efforts chooses financial education and literacy as its main grant focus.

“Poverty is not always something that is thrust upon you. It can be something that is due to lack of knowledge of what you can and can’t do,” said Graff.

Its fund with Oshkosh Area Community Foundation has supported efforts for non-native English speakers through the Winnebago County Literacy Council and has sponsored classes.

“If you’ve ever traveled to another country and tried to use their currency in a language you don’t understand, you know it can be very overwhelming,” Graff said. “Imagine trying to understand our currency, paychecks and checking accounts.”

The fund is available for uses such as helping an instructor launch a financial literacy class, Graff said.

“How many people it’s impacting is what it comes down to,” she said. “Are we making a good impact with that money.”

An experiment in finding focus

Water-Right wanted to give, but it had two problems: They didn’t know to whom, and they didn’t have a focus.

“If someone asked us ‘Would you sponsor this?’ we would be like, sure. We didn’t have guidelines,” said Gruett, referring to the years before Water-Right started a fund at Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. “It was really willy-nilly. There was no rhyme or reason.”

Even with the fund at the foundation, the company had put money in but hadn’t disbursed any until last year. “It was hard to give away money because you want to give to groups that really needed it,” Gruett said.

To get an idea of where the company’s passions lay, they did an experiment. They offered their 100 employees $250 each to give to their favorite nonprofit, with one stipulation: that they say what inspired them to donate to that charity. The exercise helped Gruett get to know his employees better.

“It was interesting to see the reasoning behind it,” Gruett said. “One employee gave their money to Habitat for Humanity because they helped build their first house, which floored me.”

A couple others donated to an equestrian program that helps those with disabilities. Several others gave to veterans charities.

“There were a lot of personal things that really tugged at your heart, and from an owner’s standpoint, I hadn’t known they cared about all these things,” Gruett said. “It was overwhelming to see all the thought people put into this.”

The experiment helped Water-Right get some direction. Its philanthropy has evolved into a committee system, where department representatives take employee suggestions and vote on how to disburse the funds.

It’s made easier decisions for Gruett and his family. “It takes the weight off us. It’s not our money anymore. The employees are directing where it goes.”

A solid foundation

Your company might not have as much time or financial wiggle room. If you employ two people, letting one spend a day at the food pantry equals a tenth of your weekly workforce. You might not want the frustration of tallying up tax deductions, cutting checks or investigating a charity before giving. That’s where community foundations can come in handy.

“We do all the administrative steps to finding the organizations they want to support and also doing any of the legal or tax stuff that needs to be done in the middle,” said Grabner. They investigate nonprofits to ensure they do what they purport to do.

Many companies set up what’s called a donor-advised fund.

“The administrative part of it is worry free: we cut the checks, we do all of that, but (when it comes to choosing a charity), usually the donors want to be a partner in deciding what to do with their money,” Grabner said.

Businesses have different reasons for setting up funds through the foundation. Maybe they’ve cashed in a life insurance policy, sold a branch, or need a tax break.

“One of the benefits of doing things with us is that a company gets a tax advantage right away but they have a longer time to think through the gift and the strategy they want behind their giving,” Grabner said. “We are a 100 percent custom-based foundation to each fund that we have.”

Giving trends

Co-investing has taken off in recent years, Grabner said. That’s where a donor wants other companies to join forces with them in funding a cause.

“That’s become a big thing lately. Donors don’t want to do all of it, they want to see multiple people at the table,” Grabner said.

She’s also seeing more partnerships with municipalities and school districts. “Sometimes organizations like the police department are the front line and they see everything (in the community), so we’ve started to go to them and say ‘What is your wish list, and what will help your officers do their jobs better?’”

Money for crisis intervention training is high on police department wish lists, she said. It’s not something donors routinely think of funding, but once they hear it’s needed, they often agree to support it.

Many donors want to leverage their gifts through special campaigns, said Curt Detjen, CEO of Community Foundation of the Fox Valley Region.

“A donor or board of an organization will pledge a certain amount up front and offer a dollar-per-dollar match.”

For example, Thrivent in Appleton doubles donations to the Salvation Army Red Kettle campaign on certain days. These campaigns work well because people appreciate seeing their gifts maximized, Detjen said. “Doubling the impact is of great appeal to a lot of people.”

Know your ‘yes’

Eventually, you’re going to have to say ‘no’ to someone, and if you’re not like the Grinch, it might even break your heart.

But in the same way a business needs to be strategic and focused on the markets it serves, charitable giving needs to have a focus as well, said Detjen. “No one can do it all,” he said. “Charitable giving should follow the value system of the business and the interest areas that match up best with the corporate values or those of the employees.”

He has some advice on gracefully declining those requests that don’t gel with your mission.

“The best way to say ‘no’ is to know exactly what you intend to say ‘yes’ to,” Detjen said. “That way, there’s no reason to feel badly, because your giving is being channeled into the areas that are clearly the priorities for that business donor, and they should feel very good about that.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.