Giving Money Away

By David Bray

Everybody wins when businesses support charities, non-profits, and other local causes — like the Royal Victoria Marathon.

Maureen Young gives away her bosses’ money. So does Vivian Chenard. Between them, they have given away nearly $40 million in five years. All of it to worthy causes.

They are among a growing number of corporate staff charged with overseeing their companies’ community investment, sponsorship, and partnership programs — big words for giving to charities, non-profits, and other local causes that depend on public help.

“It’s absolutely fundamental to the company and the value system we have to be present in the community in a meaningful way,” says Young, whose job title at Coast Capital Savings is community investment specialist. The credit union earmarks seven per cent of its annual pre-tax profits for community contributions. For Coast Capital, that’s added up to more than $21 million in contributions since 2004, with amounts increasing significantly each year. In 2008, the company gave out $5.1 million, a 76-per-cent increase over its $2.9 million in 2004 contributions. The company has an assortment of programs under its investment umbrella that give out cash, donations of goods and services, and staff time. Another endeavour supports training programs for leaders of non-profit groups.     

Cash and equivalent values of the giving programs are calculated on criteria devised by the London Benchmarking Group of Canada, an association of companies using a standard approach to reporting contributions.

“It’s a simple formula. The better the company does, the better the community does,” says Young. “As the business model does well, community investment increases.”

Chenard, who is manager of community relations and events for Thrifty Foods, gives away about $4 million a year through support programs and food bank donations. Some of the money is set aside in the company’s annual budget and some comes from a percentage of profits. “I definitely spend it all. We’re very generous,” says Chenard. “We try to help as many as we can. There are not too many groups that we don’t support.”
Thrifty’s Smile Card program is the most popular fundraiser. Supporters of more than 750 participating groups, many of them schools, load money onto a special loyalty card and the charity gets five per cent of the amount of groceries and goods purchased. The take depends on the size of the organization and the number of people involved and usually ranges from about $500 to $5,000, Chenard says. “It’s not cut and dried. We determine every project on its own merits,” she adds. “That’s probably one of our most successful programs. And everybody wins.”

Chenard handles requests for event sponsorships and donations of cash, product, or services. Local stores have small budgets to support their own communities and larger requests, those over $1,000, go to head office. “There is no one-size-fits-all format. Every one is different. We look at food requirements if that’s what’s needed or maybe they want cash or a food basket or a gift card for prizing. Maybe they need tents. We can provide a refrigerated truck if that’s what’s needed.” 

The Thrifty Foods name pops up at hundreds of events a year from the Royal Victoria Marathon, a $30,000 sponsorship arrangement, to the Times Colonist 10-K run to a fundraising chocolate sale collaboration with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, a large-scale mobilization of services, personnel, and products over two weeks in October.

The chocolate sale raised more than $38,000 last year and it’s a natural fit for the food store operation, says Chenard. “They had a partnership with Rogers’ Chocolates and we sell Rogers’ chocolates in our stores. So it made sense to get together so we can assist the program and raise a lot of money for a charity.”

The cancer event was one of the most successful the company has done and it wasn’t rocket science. “It was a small item, it was at every till, it was an impulse buy, and it supported a charity directly,” Chenard notes, adding Thrifty’s also used its stores to sell “Jeans Day” buttons to aid the BC Children’s Hospital and then matched the money raised. “We were a vehicle to make that happen.”

Maureen Young at Coast Capital says, besides cash, the financial institution also spreads its resources and expertise around for causes large and small and gets out wherever it can. The Victoria Tall Ships event got a cash grant for its 2008 spectacle, but company employees were also freed up to staff the volunteer centre and handle the cash from ticket booths and food vendors.

Thrifty Foods’ staff picked up garbage, sold tickets, and handed out brochures for last year’s B.C. 150 Festival and the company put people and support vehicles on the road for the annual Cops for Cancer tour.

“You’ll see the involvement of our communications and marketing departments. We’ll connect with the folks who do our graphic design. We’ll assist in bringing some of those resources to the table,” Young says. “Our staff, right down to the front-line folks, is completely focussed on what we are doing in the community. We’re more than a little bit tuned in.”     

Serious Coffee’s Dave Goudy hears what his corporate colleagues are saying and says firms that don’t give back just don’t get it. Community support has to be part of any company’s basic genetics, he says. Especially in times of economic downturn, it’s difficult for non-profit groups to raise money and hard for ordinary folks to give, Goudy adds.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for these groups to raise funds. If we can support them, it all comes back. What goes around, comes around,” says Goudy, the sales and promotion point man for the Island coffee chain. “You’re showing support for your neighbours, your friends, your colleagues.”

It offers a sort of “plug-and-play” package for non-profits using coffee bean certificates. They buy gift certificates for $7.50 apiece from the company, redeem them for one-pound bags of coffee, sell the coffee for whatever price they want (the company suggests $12 to $13.50), and pocket the profits. The company also donates a portion of daily sales to various causes several times a year and is involved in larger events such as the annual Tour de Rock. 

“We want to try to give back to those groups — that’s the motivation,” says Goudy, who says “quite a few hundred” of its bean certificate packages are distributed every year to groups ranging from schools to Scout troops. “The money goes directly to that group. We don’t make any money on it. We just cover our costs.”
All of the organizations interviewed agree that it’s hard to shut the door on a request, and they try to help out everyone. Even if the cause isn’t a good fit or the company budget is maxed out, there’s usually something they can do, be it prize giving or lending expertise.

“We don’t say ‘no’ to a lot. We may be able to help with a gift card or something. But sometimes we just have to explain that we are a business and only have so much budget and resources,” Chenard says. “Most people understand that. Everyone has limits and we just don’t have an open book.”

All concede that while philanthropy is motivated for good reasons and leaves a warm feeling, it doesn’t hurt the image either. “What’s in it for us? I think the community knows we support those organizations. They feel it’s our duty to do that and, hopefully, down the road they might decide to buy their groceries from us,” says Chenard. “I think there’s logo recognition on more than half the events in town and I think as people see that they know, ‘Hey, they’re part of the community.’ And we are. We don’t just say it: we do it.”

Coast Capital’s Young says community involvement even helps with
staff recruitment. “When we interview people for new positions, one of the things we hear regularly is that our presence in the community is one of the major factors that attracted them to apply,” she says. “In terms of staff attraction, retention, and loyalty, it’s an important piece.”  

On the other side of the table, non-profits and charities aren’t shy in saying their business givers are often the difference between success and failure. “Those critical partnerships make it possible. What’s important is the perception that you’re giving back, that you’re a caring business,” says Rhonda Brown, executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Victoria. “That holds a lot of weight in Victoria.”

She says fundraisers, like her group’s annual springtime Chocolate Fest, wouldn’t happen without local businesses stepping up. “It’s all about collaboration. There’s no way we could afford to host an event like that,” Brown says. “The business needs to know there’s a benefit to them, that being perceived to be supporting the community supports their business as well. That’s a true partnership — you’re helping us grow our organization and we’re helping you grow your business.”

Carol Barton at the Salvation Army concurs. Local businesses lined up earlier this year to answer an urgent call for a refrigerated truck for food transport and a local software firm handed more than $13,000 raised through an in-house company campaign. The Running Room has teamed up with the Salvation Army in Christmas campaigns for the last 10 years.

“The business side is huge for us. Corporate responsibility is very important and businesses are increasingly willing to partner with us,” says Barton, who figures her organization gets a 50/50 split between individual public donations and corporate support. “It’s almost always with no strings attached. We like to give them recognition. It’s good will and you don’t want to let that go unnoticed.”

Mel Cooper knows both sides. The former owner of C-FAX radio now chairs the Telus Victoria Community Board and sits on numerous boards. He’s been a business leader and community fundraiser for decades and says businesses that have no corporate social responsibility are bucking the current. “If you do not become part of the river you’re going to be left on the bank,” says Cooper, who counts both the Order of Canada and Order of B.C. among a string of recognition awards. “If you live in isolation and say, ‘I have no responsibility to anyone else,’ you are wrong. And you’re more wrong today than ever.”

Cooper says Telus ties community contribution into its business model and makes a point of doing what it says it will. Telus’s latest social responsibility report says boards like Cooper’s gave out $5.4 million in 2008 to support projects across the country. Another $1.2 million funds Canadian-based juvenile diabetes research.
“The magic word is attitude. Taking care of ourselves and our community is a way of life, and we’re getting more and more of that in corporate life. I would suggest that any business model should say, ‘How do we give back,’” he says. “It comes at a cost to the corporation because none of what they give is free. But it’s not really a cost: it’s actually an investment.”

Cooper adds that even when boardrooms grapple with an economy going south, any move to cut community programs is a bad idea. Wield the axe somewhere else, he suggests. “It’s the right thing to do. One of the responsibilities we have as human beings is to do something for our fellow human beings. I’ve never seen anyone say, ‘We’ll fool everybody by appearing to care.’”