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Giving back with care


Philanthropy is a goal of many business owners, but careful planning is needed to prevent giving until it hurts

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

PHILANTHROPY IS A LITTLE LIKE taking your feisty terrier to the dog park: It’s a gift of freedom; you feel giddy about making someone happy.

But eventually you’ve got to put a leash on things – or fur starts to fly.

“We get everything from ‘give me free custard for my family party’ to ‘please provide me with $500 in gift cards for me to hand out at my company party,’ ” said Pat Miller, owner and operator of five Culver’s franchises in Fond du Lac and Oshkosh.

Miller said she receives 35 to 50 requests for donations per week. She turns very few away entirely, she said, but does limit the number of coupons she’ll provide.

“Sometimes, when 30 or 40 requests cross my desk, I will send $10 or $15 in coupons to each as I evaluate each request,” Miller said.

Philanthropic giving is an issue many businesses face, yet there’s no real central clearinghouse of guidelines for businesses – no bluebook, advice queen or Dog Whisperer to consult. How much to give, and how often? Or to whom?

When everybody in town seems to be asking for class-trip-to-Nassau sponsorships, free merchandise for the St. Bernard’s raffle, and funds for their cousin’s veterinary bills, where does a frazzled business owner draw the line?

Sit. Stay. Set boundaries early on

IF YOU DON’T HAVE A SET PHILANTHROPIC PROTOCOL in place, giving can feel random and out of control.

Some corporations set aside a percentage of their profits, say 5 percent or so, said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president of the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation.

“Bigger corporations do tend to have a plan, and I’ve heard it from bigger corporations that they are getting a little bombarded; they say we really only have so much money set aside for this kind of stuff,” Connolly-Keesler said. “They have a budget and they have to make it stretch.”

Some organizations start the year with a set amount and award grants quarterly.

“That is flexible and fluid; we have no idea what’s walking in the door,” Connolly-Keesler said. “Typically, we try to look at things on a quarterly basis; that helps stretch money through the year.”

Others just give willy-nilly to whoever walks in the door.

Since each Culver’s is independently owned, each sets its own philanthropy policy.

“Our annual budget is basically determined by the needs in the communities,” Miller said.

The list of causes Culver’s gives to seems almost endless: from churches and hospitals to school sports and law enforcement groups and practically everything in between.

But on the other hand, Miller acknowledged that business owners can’t give everything that everyone asks.

“When they say just give me money, I say put a little effort into it. I may be giving them product; but if you call me up and asked me for 500 value-basket coupons, I just can’t give that to 30 or 40 people a week.”

Others limit to whom and what causes they give. The Neenah-based J. J. Keller Foundation only gives to nonprofits that impact basic needs in the Fox Valley area.

The Bellin Foundation in Green Bay limits its contributions to organizations that benefit health and well-being, although it sometimes makes exceptions for causes with which the organization has partnerships.

“We sponsored the neighborhood picnic because it’s a time for families to get together, and family togetherness is of value to well-being,” said Michael Frohna, president of the Bellin Foundation.

While cancer and heart-research funds are no-brainers for Bellin, everything athletic isn’t always a go.

“We never give money for an individual to attend a contest or a sports team to travel to a tournament,” Frohna said.

But Bellin has been known to fund pieces of exercise or activity-related team equipment.

“The key to establishing boundaries is to stick with them once they’re made,” said Marne Keller-Krikava, J. J. Keller Foundation board member.

Early in their giving history, her grandparents, Jack and Ethel Keller, founders of the J. J. Keller Foundation, funded many diverse causes from athletic fields to retirement communities. Later, the J. J. Keller Foundation Board decided to focus on basic human needs in the Fox Valley, meaning food, shelter, clothing or good medical care, as examples.

“Today, we support programs and organizations that address the causes and consequences of poverty and other specialty areas of interest, such as mental health,” Keller-Krikava said.

In order to encourage personal philanthropy, a small portion of the foundation’s annual giving is set aside for individual board members to direct toward causes they’re passionate about.

“Thus, when you see the foundation involved in something not tightly tied to our mission, you can assume the donation has been designated at the discretion of a specific board member,” Keller-Krikava said.

The J. J. Keller Foundation is a private, independent family foundation, rather than a corporate foundation. The foundation is required by law to annually distribute at least 5 percent of its assets to IRS-certified non profits. But often they exceed that, said Mary Harp-Jirschele, executive director of the J. J. Keller Foundation.

“Just because we meet the foundation’s legal requirements for giving doesn’t mean the need ends,” Harp-Jirschele said. “We have a very giving board, and our budget is used as a guideline. In fact, we don’t even call it a budget; it’s called a grantmaking guideline.”

Heel, boy, heel

IT’S IMPORTANT TO DRAW A LINE in the sand somewhere.

And according to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey, many companies are doing just that. Some 73 percent of the nation’s largest corporations polled indicate they wouldn’t be giving as much to charity in the near future as they did before the recession, according to its Aug. 7, 2010 issue.

“If you don’t have a formal plan laid out, you should at least have a dollar figure in mind so that you don’t get bled dry too badly,” said JoEllen Wollangk, northeast regional manager for the Better Business Bureau of Wisconsin.

She compared budgeting for giving to planning ahead for Christmas shopping.

“Decide what you think your company can afford to give,” Wollangk said. “Make a list of those things you really want to support and that have meaning for you.”

One tactic a member of Wollangk’s advisory board uses to weed out good from bad causes when he gets a phone solicitation: “He asks, ‘Do you meet the Better Business Bureau’s 20 Standards for non-profits?’ Half the time, they hang up on him,” Wollangk said.

Helping kids is high on the list for Culver’s, Miller said.

“We’ve paid to install new lighting in playgrounds, provided new computers in schools, libraries, etc. Our main objective is to give back in our communities wherever and whenever we find the need,” Miller said.

Donors or corporations usually have their hotspots – things they value or give to and they just need to keep doing that, Connolly-Keesler said.

“There are some businesses that just love the arts and that’s what they give to; they should continue to give to that. That is a real value call for companies and donors. A lot of it is who you know and who puts pressure on you.”

Marmaduke, is that you?

IT’S NOT YOUR IMAGINATION: More people do have their hands out lately. Demand for charity keeps growing. And growing. Requests for donations are up enormously this giving year, according to Connolly-Keesler.

“I have to say, from the foundation perspective, I have never seen this number of requests,” Connolly-Keesler said.

In her 11 years with the foundation, the last six months have seen the greatest demand.

“July 1 is when our giving year begins, and we could be out of our budget right now. Right now, people are just out of money, they’ve used everything they have and they are lining up. I am really quite amazed.”

The Oshkosh Area Community Foundation has funds earmarked for individual categories of needs, as well as “unrestricted” money that can go wherever.

“We hold dollars for everything, for capital campaigns, for the environment, for the arts, education, women’s issues,” Connolly-Keesler said.

But an economy such as the one we’re in the midst of calls for basic needs to take precedence, Connolly-Keesler said. That means sustenance and shelter come before song and Shakespeare.

“What happened is all of us shifted our philanthropic dollars to basic needs,” Connolly-Keesler said. “We have had to make sure people are fed, that they have housing and that they have clothing.”

“We do have unrestricted dollars, and two years ago we shifted all our unrestricted dollars to basic needs causes. That’s why organizations that are used to coming to us for their $5,000 or $10,000 grant really took a hit.”

But Connolly-Keesler said it’s important to have arts in the community – you can’t just have food pantries and shelters, she said.

“You need quality of life. Right now, the arts are suffering,” Connolly-Keesler said.

Small organizations – the kind run by one or two people – are struggling. Connolly-Keesler said she’ll be interested in whether – once funding for basic needs causes has leveled out – people start giving to arts-related causes again.

Encourage good behavior

SOME BUSINESSES CAN GIVE their products to causes, and those products, whether it’s paper towels or pizza, help defray overall overhead for that charity.

In many cases, Culver’s supplies free food for emergency workers. Red Cross and Salvation Army during fires or other disasters are two examples.

In other cases, Miller might offer to help a group do its own fundraising. For example, Culver’s might:

Help a group hold a build-your-own-sundae event;

Invite charity volunteers or celebrities to serve as waitstaff-for-the-night (in return for a percentage of that night’s profits); or

Help a group hold a world’s-longest-sundae event, (wherein eaves troughs hold soft-serve custard with all the fixings, and portions are sold).

Another solution Miller has found is trading gift cards or coupons with local companies. If a company asks for Culver’s gift cards to give as employee gifts, Miller asks that business for gift cards from their business for her employees.

“Win-win situation on that,” Miller said.

Be smart and do a flea-check

JUST BECAUSE IT’S A NON-PROFIT organization doesn’t mean it uses its money well, the BBB’s Wollangk advised. Before your business gives its well-earned money to anyone soliciting funds for a cause, do your research.

“Make sure you know who you are dealing with,” Wollangk said. “If a person wants to place collection jars on your counter for the humane society or whatever, check with that organization to see if that person is actually from that organization.”

A few years ago, a charity used the words “Wisconsin” and “veterans” in its title and solicited money from donors. Posing as an Appleton business, it gave a local address – which turned out to be a mailing center downtown. The charity turned out to be an out-of-state outfit that gave 90 percent of its money to unnamed organizations.

“There are really some pretty questionable things out there,” Wollangk said. “We all want to help; we all feel badly that so many veterans have been deployed for so long.”

But just because it has an official-sounding name doesn’t mean it’s an official charity, she said.

When you buy an ad, make sure you know who you’re buying from and when the ad will be published, Wollangk cited as another example.

When the J. J. Keller Foundation Board of Directors weighs-in on grant requests, it asks questions about who the money will impact.

“Of course we look first at whether the request fits with our mission and service area (Fox Valley), but there are many other considerations,” Keller-Krikava said. “For example, beyond the importance of the issue being addressed in the grant request, is there a solid plan or strategy in place for accomplishing the goals? Does the proposed program hold promise to affect the root cause of poverty in our community? How does the proposed project bring about positive change?”

An alumna of Ripon College, Lee Marie Reinsch is a freelance writer based in Green Bay.