Mid-Market Management Trends … Philanthropy at Mid-Market Firms: It Pays to Be Creative

While Warren Buffett’s record gift of $37 billion to charity grabbed headlines earlier this year, the quiet, small-scale giving by thousands of businesses and individuals went largely unnoticed. Yet, with a little creativity, midsize companies can make their philanthropic activities stand out, not only providing a wealth of assistance to those in need, but also strengthening their organizations at the same time.

Across the nation, small and midsize companies and their
staffs routinely give cash, pro bono professional services, and
volunteer time to nonprofit organizations and people in need.
Altogether, the charitable contributions of small and midsize
companies make up a significant amount of corporate giving.
Even without the huge foundations and staff resources of the
larger Fortune 500 companies, they manage to contribute to
their communities, boost employee camaraderie, and bolster
staff recruitment and retention.

Be a Good Citizen

Corporate philanthropy has become an important part of
achieving company excellence, especially at award-winning
businesses. While most midsize companies rarely advertise
their philanthropy, a company’s role in the community can
have a strong influence on the public’s perception. “It makes
sense to be a good corporate citizen in the area in which you
operate. Out of that, you develop a local reputation which can
become valuable when recruiting employees,” said Nick
Schulson, vice president of human resources at Electric
Insurance in Beverly, Mass. “Employees really, really value a
socially responsible company. It becomes part of the culture.”

Gary Steuer, vice president of private-sector affairs at
Americans for the Arts, has spent much of his career
encouraging partnerships between business and the arts.
In his opinion, retail-giant Target is a good example of a
company that plays a positive role in communities.

“Target has been incredibly philanthropic at the local,
grassroots community level. Whenever they open a store
in a community, they become a friend to that community.
They support education, the arts, and environmental
groups. They’re not viewed in a hostile way by
communities,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an accident.”

While there’s no single way midsize companies
maximize their philanthropic dollars, there are several
common methods of giving used by companies that have
been recognized as being a good place to work or a good
corporate citizen:
• pairing cash contributions with donated staff time;
• choosing recipients by a committee representing
employees from different levels and departments; and
• selecting recipients of pro bono services carefully to
showcase company talent and/or enhance its

A Little Creativity Goes a Long Way

Coming up with new, interesting ways to donate to
charity can be good for both the community and the
company. APCO Worldwide, a communications
consulting firm based in Washington, D.C., has been
recognized by multiple sources as a great place to work.
“At APCO, like many firms our size, when you don’t
have the deep pockets, you have to be creative with what
you do,” said Elena Garcia, the company’s vice president
of human resources. “I think if you are a little creative
and you engage the employees, it’s not that difficult and
the payback is huge.”

To raise funds for the United Way, each of the senior
leaders at Availity LLC in Jacksonville, Fla., agreed to
donate one-on-one time with the winner of a raffle, said
Margaret Gomez, vice president of finance and
administration at the five-year-old company, a provider
of e-health transactions. The woman who won the raffle
for a day with the senior vice president of operations
decided to have him mow her lawn—while she invited
the gang from the office over for a party. So, along with
raising funds for charity, employees had a few laughs and
an opportunity to see each other outside of the office.

Several companies have used drives such as “jeans
days,” in which employees pay a few dollars to wear
jeans to work and the money goes to support a local
charity or a special need, such as aid for disaster victims.
Many companies have also “adopted” disadvantaged
families around the holidays and have staff buy and wrap
gifts for them. Other types of drives include buying
school supplies for needy children and sending packages
to U.S. troops stationed overseas.

While most of these events were inspired and funded by
the employees, some companies also donate professional
services, focusing on groups that meet their philanthropic
goals. For example, Haskell & White LLP, Certified
Public Accountants and Business Advisors, of Irvine,
Calif., donate professional services to area nonprofits at
or below cost. “We provide services to some private
schools that are nonsectarian, even parochial schools, at
cut rates because we would like them to spend their
money on educating children, not on professional
services,” said David R. White II, co-founder of the firm.

Volunteering on Company Time

Companies that look at philanthropy as a challenge
rather than as a chore say it fosters a friendly work
environment. Many award-winning companies let their
employees influence the company’s giving and allow
employees to choose how they spend their volunteer
time. Businesses of all types have embraced the concept
of “relief time,” which generally gives employees
anywhere from four to eight hours off per year to
volunteer in the community. Some businesses sponsor a
soup kitchen or a school and allow staff to take a couple
of hours off each quarter to serve a meal or read to

According to Gary Steuer, “relief time” was common in
the 1960s and 70s; then, the pendulum swung the other
way. Companies even discouraged employees from
volunteering on their own time. “They wanted people
working 100 hours a week,” he said. But with the new
emphasis on work-life balance, and a growing number of
prospective employees and clients asking about a
business’s philanthropic profile, companies are
embracing the fact that most people care about more than
just their paychecks. These days, Steuer said, allowing
staff to volunteer during the workday “helps businesses
in terms of how they’re viewed in the community and
whether people want to be working for that company.
They also realize that employees have to have a life to be
more productive.”

At Availity, an award-winning, women-led business,
work-life balance is one of the business’s stated values,
Gomez said. “You can work in a computer environment
only so long with heads down,” she said. But because the
business runs a call center and people need to be in the
office, the company has looked for volunteer work that
can be completed within the office, such as compiling
CARE packages in the staff break room. The volunteer
time usually supplements a corporate cash donation.

“Whenever you can augment what you’re doing
philanthropically by getting your employees engaged,
that has much more resonance,” Steuer said.

In fact, limiting cash donations to those causes that can
also accommodate employee volunteers helps Denverbased
law firm Wheeler Trigg Kennedy narrow the field.
“One of our main goals is to build camaraderie
internally,” said Connie M. Proulx, marketing director for
Wheeler Trigg Kennedy and executive director of the
Wheeler Trigg Kennedy Foundation. “We don’t want to
just write a check.”

The foundation’s operating committee, comprised of
people from all levels of the firm, considers team
building an important benefit of staff volunteer time, she
said. The firm hopes that getting people together who
don’t normally interact outside the office, where the
focus is on serving others, will help staff members
connect. “For example, having one of the firm’s named
partners wielding a paintbrush alongside a file clerk can
be more effective in breaking down communication
barriers and getting to know each other as people than
hours of sensitivity training,” she said.


How Companies Give:
Areas of Greatest Involvement*

Giving key employees time off to
engage in charity work 45%

Health-related charities
(cancer, heart disease, etc.) 34%

Educational grants or prizes to
college/high school students 32%

Sponsorship of local athletic teams or events 32%

Donating own products or services to
specific charities 29%

Disaster relief (earthquakes, tsunamis, famine) 26%

The arts: music, theatre, dance charities 21%

*Multiple answers allowed.

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers, “Trendsetter Barometer,”
October 2005.


Philanthropy Can Help Corporate Branding

These kinds of charitable activities also have the benefits
of increasing employee satisfaction and helping with
recruitment and retention, consultants and company
human resources leaders said. “It absolutely defines the
culture and is a large component of our employment
brand here,” said Schulson, with Electric Insurance.
“Without question, it is a unifying cultural element
shared by all employees. We see it most in the employees
that we rehire. They say, ‘I didn’t realize how great a company
we were until I left.’ Part of that greatness is that sense of
community, of which our philanthropic effort is a very big part.”

Employees at businesses recognized as good employers
cite the corporation’s philanthropic culture as a selling
point. When Haskell & White was identified as one of
the 10 best places to work in the Irvine area, David White
said, employees cited the company’s philanthropic
contributions to the community and encouragement of
employees to get involved as things they liked about the

These days, many jobseekers—particularly those in their
early 30s and younger—routinely ask about a company’s
philanthropy and corporate social responsibility.
Wheeler Trigg Kennedy, the Denver law firm, takes on
high profile, pro bono cases that allow it to showcase its
lawyers’ skills. One such case involved a group of
Colorado prison inmates fighting for their First
Amendment rights after corrections personnel at their
facility objected to the types of newspapers and
magazines they were receiving and withheld their mail.
Several of the firm’s lawyers are also representing
plaintiffs seeking to halt the use of electronic voting
machines in the state due to questions of reliability,
accuracy, and security.

That kind of pro bono work strengthens corporate
branding and helps with recruitment, said Michael L.
O’Donnell, chairman of Wheeler Trigg Kennedy. “People
want to work for an organization that does the right
thing—that has a community service” mindset, he said.
“It helps attract young, idealistic lawyers.” The 40-
lawyer firm encourages every lawyer to spend at least 50
hours a year on pro bono activities, O’Donnell said. “The
firm tells lawyers they won’t be penalized economically
for participating in reasonable levels of pro bono.”

Hesta Properties Inc., a real estate firm with operations in
North Carolina, Palm Beach, and Philadelphia, has
merged its philanthropy so closely with its brand identity
that it affects revenues, Steuer said. The firm buys art and
installs it in the lobbies, atriums, and outside entrances of
its properties and hosts gallery tours. “They get a higher
rent per square foot than anyone else,” Steuer said.

There’s another sort of corporate branding that doesn’t
necessarily bring in business but elevates a company’s
reputation as a community citizen. Standard Register, a
large-scale printer headquartered in Dayton, Ohio,
participates in several philanthropic programs through its
foundation, the Sherman Standard Register Foundation.
After years of having a partnership with a local
elementary school where nearly all the children lived in
poverty, the company joined with others for the Kids In
Need Foundation School Box program. Their donation
allowed every child at their partner school to get a box
full of school supplies.

While people who see the Standard Register logo on the
box are unlikely to be customers, the company still
benefits, said David Clapper, facilities management
director and chairman of the firm’s community
contributions council. People who see the logo “know
that Standard Register cares about the community,” he
said. “It helps solidify the Standard Register presence as
a community partner in the Dayton area. …We believe
that if we don’t help the youth in this community, we are
not doing our due diligence as a community partner.”

A survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP
found that while 73 percent of privately held companies
are involved in charitable giving and 40 percent of
CEOs describe corporate giving as a priority, more than
half the CEOs interviewed, 55 percent, don’t see it as
important to their long-term growth, said Kevin Roach,
a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Private
Company Services.

But the more progressive midsize companies realize that
in order to grow, they need to attract and retain quality
employees and network with other businesses, he said.
Because midsize businesses are competing for staff with
large firms, “They have to work even harder at the
human resource issues,” Roach said. Companies that
make their philanthropic work known to employees keep
their staff motivated, he said. “They have an employee
base that’s family oriented. They feel a part of
something,” Roach said. People want to work for a
company they feel good about.

A Good Investment

While philanthropy has a positive effect on the
workplace, businesses should also look at it as a longterm
investment in their firms and their communities.
David White, who is semi-retired from his accounting
firm, has been serving on boards for causes he cares
about for decades. If you’re not prepared to roll up your
sleeves and do the work, he says, you could actually hurt
your company’s reputation.

“The driving factor really has to be your belief in what
that organization does,” he said. “If you’re going to go
there and pass out cards and try to get business, you’re
going to be ignored.”

Volunteer for a cause you feel passionate about, he

When White joins an organization, he volunteers for the
task that’s the least amount of fun, he said. “I just
finished three years as vice president of development of
the county arts council, because nobody wanted to do it.
That’s why you have to believe in the mission of the

After years of service, including 15 years with the local
Boys & Girls Club board, he and his firm are known and
he gets referrals from large international accounting
firms. “Most referrals are done on more than reputation,”
White said. “They’re done on relationships.”


Philanthropy and Business:
New Priorities

The Conference Board surveyed 231 companies
between January and March 2006 about corporate
giving priorities for the upcoming year. The results
revealed that the philanthropic goals of many
businesses are changing.

• Almost half of the companies (49 percent) reported
that the biggest change in corporate giving over the
last five years is its alignment with business needs
and corporate reputation and branding.

• More than two-thirds (68 percent) of companies
reported that volunteerism will grow in importance as
a management priority.

• A large number (40 percent) of companies use the
size of their local workforce to decide where to give
outside of their home country.

• Asia is growing in importance in terms of targeting
corporate philanthropy programs.

• Many businesses (42 percent) listed diversity as the
program area that will be most important in 2006,
with Latino organizations ranking highest in

Source: Philanthropy and Business: The Changing Agenda, The
Conference Board, Research Report R-1389-06-RR, May 2006.


Global Giving

As companies in the U.S. have become increasingly global,
their philanthropic efforts have followed. Astudy done by
the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy,
which encourages corporate philanthropy at the CEO level,
found that global companies of all sizes are devoting about
10 percent of their giving to international causes. Charles
Moore, executive director, said his organization sees
companies wanting to make a bigger difference in the
foreign communities in which they do business. Companies
typically rely on the nationals heading up operations in
those countries to identify needs in their communities and
help spearhead partnerships that involve giving and
volunteer hours, he said.

“We find in this global giving that companies still want
to measure it,” Moore said. Just as they do with their
U.S. philanthropy programs, “they want to be as strategic
as possible. They don’t want to be reactive. They want to
build partnerships.” More and more companies are using
their competitive strengths and aligning their business
model with their corporate philanthropy abroad, he said.
“It’s no surprise that IBM wants to reinvent education
through its technology.”

One Boston-based travel company has been committed to
global corporate philanthropy for years, but when it
started integrating its philanthropy more closely with its
business, customer satisfaction skyrocketed, a company
official said.

Alan and Harriet Lewis bought Grand Circle Corporation
in 1985 and immediately began giving money away, but
the philanthropy was separate from the travel business,
said Maury Peterson, vice president, people & culture
and corporate philanthropy. The company has 45 offices

“Three years ago, we decided to bring [philanthropy] into
the travel business,” she said. They decided to add
questions relating to the company’s philanthropy to the
14-page survey given to travelers after their trips, which
included visits to sites that are recipients of the
company’s giving. The survey showed that when
travelers visited schools and had one-on-one interactions
with the children, the satisfaction scores soared. “It made
us take a hard look at what we were funding and what
was resonating with our travelers,” Peterson said.

Through its World Classroom initiative, the company
decided to invest $10 million over five years in 80 schools
around the world, which their travelers can visit. “We see
schools as the heart of our communities,” she said. The
travelers enjoy seeing that their trips help to support
schools in need all over the world, she said. While the
giving back is woven into the fabric of the company
because it’s the right thing to do, she said, there have been
business benefits. “We see it as a competitive advantage.
Now that we started to hone in on what our travelers are
telling us, our excellence rating is at 82 percent.”

It wasn’t always easy. At first, some of their regional
managers were resistant toward the program. For
example, Italy’s regional manager was reluctant to
suggest schools until Harriet Lewis spoke to him face-toface.
With the help of employees, he found schools that
could benefit from a financial donation and would allow
American travelers to visit. Travelers are giving their
visits to the Italian schools high marks, which raises the
regional manager’s overall score, his compensation, and
gives him a sense of pride, she said. “He can go and give
money back to his own country,” she said. “A lot of our
regional managers, they are like rock stars.”

Grand Circle Corporation has received several awards
this year for its philanthropic work, including an
“excellence award” for outstanding CEO commitment,
dedication to measurement, and philanthropic innovation
from the Committee to Encourage Corporate

“I believe that each of us wants to be part of something
larger than ourselves,” Alan Lewis said. “When you
involve your associates in philanthropy, your business
attracts and keeps not only the best employees, but also,
the best customers.”

Indirect, but Vital

Not all companies tie their philanthropy directly to what
they do, but they feel there are indirect benefits nonetheless.
Take Frontera Resources, a Houston-based international
oil and gas company co-founded by Lan Bentsen,
director and executive vice president, who is also the son
of the late Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen. As a board
member of the March of Dimes in Houston, Bentsen oversaw
a campaign that dramatically reduced Houston’s
infant mortality rate; when expanded statewide, it reduced
Texas’s infant mortality ranking from 48th in the United
States to 23rd over a three-year period.

Since 1997, Frontera has worked with the government of
the former soviet republic of Georgia to explore and drill
for oil. When he saw the high infant mortality rate there,
he thought the Texas program could improve the health
care for Georgian women, who in some rural areas of the
country often lack access to basic health care and are not
taught healthy living practices, such as avoiding smoking
and alcohol use.

“What I saw was there needed to be more high-risk
OB/GYN services in the rural areas,” he said. “If I could
get a mobile obstetric clinic, and get the doctors to agree
to run a rural route…we could make an impact.” By luck,
Frontera’s general manager is a Georgian and a former
OB/GYN who went to medical school with Georgia’s
chief OB/GYN. Bentsen helped to put together a
partnership with Georgia’s health department, the chief
OB/GYN, and the University of Texas to provide
updated training to doctors. Bentsen also gave $250,000
from his company for the mobile clinic.

Bentsen said he is “more of a venture capitalist,” whose
role is to analyze a system, understand dynamics, and
make deals. “While we’re looking at a number of
investment opportunities in Georgia, investing in
lowering infant mortality and improving health clearly
had the best return on investment,” he said. “It’s a very
focused piece where we think we can make a significant
difference in a short period of time,” Bentsen said.
“We’re investing in the Republic of Georgia’s future.”

Looking forward, as businesses become increasingly
global, the pressure to invest philanthropic funds in
communities outside their headquarters’ locations will
grow, said Moore and others.

“As companies find more and more of their revenue and
profits coming from overseas, they have started to shift
their philanthropy to reflect that,” said Steuer, of
Americans for the Arts. It’s not going to happen
overnight, but as businesses generate revenue from
outside the U.S., the expectation that they will support
the communities in which they do business will increase.


About the author

Theresa Sullivan Barger, an award-winning journalist with
20 years of daily newspaper experience, is an editor at
The Hartford Courant. She is also a freelance business
writer who wrote the Mid-Market Executive Action
Reports, “The Nuts and Bolts of Execution: Putting
Ideas to Work,” “Hispanics in the Workplace: Building
Meaningful Diversity,” and “Making it in Manufacturing:
Becoming Lean to Compete Globally.” She also writes
for an exporting magazine and an engineering magazine.
She serves on boards in her community and writes
newsletters pro bono for non-profit organizations.