Best practices for corporate giving and volunteering

A group of First Weber employees volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity site.
A group of First Weber employees volunteer at a Habitat for Humanity site.

Last updated on December 20th, 2021 at 02:36 pm

The ways in which companies give their energy and resources to charitable causes are as varied as the work they do.

But they share some common themes. Employers who are serious about their giving efforts have a dedicated structure in place, work with organizations and causes that have meaning and align with company values, and have companywide buy-in that starts at the top.

“Corporate partners right now, they really want to be part of a solution,” said Patrick Rath, president and chief executive  officer of the Milwaukee-based United Performing Arts Fund.

UPAF is a nonprofit organization that engages the community to support 14 member groups in eastern Wisconsin, such as Milwaukee Ballet and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, plus 26 affiliate groups. Roughly 60% of its funding comes from corporate sponsorship and employee giving. Twenty companies make up more than 90% of its overall corporate support.

As an example, Rath said companies are not as interested in simply saying that they provided free meals in the community. 

“It’s being able to say who those meals are for, and now how has that made a difference in people’s lives,” Rath said. “That’s the level of detail that I think a lot of companies are now approaching their giving overall, which is more outcome-focused, and strategically part of their own values as a company.”

Grafton-based Kapco Inc., a maker of metal products, has a reputation as a company that’s serious about its giving. It was named BizTimes’ Corporate Citizen of the Year in 2019.

“Kapco’s philanthropy policy, if you had to put it in a few words, is, ‘How can we pay it forward to our community, and how can we make a difference locally?’” said Kenzie Gonzalez, who assists with Kapco’s corporate giving and philanthropic efforts. 

Gonzalez is also senior researcher at Hometown Heroes Inc., a nonprofit founded by Kapco leadership. The organization is financially independent of Kapco, though the two share some resources, such as in accounting and marketing, she said. It organizes what Gonzalez called “trauma-informed camping.” The first program it created is Camp Hometown Heroes, for kids who have lost a parent or sibling who served in the military.

Kapco’s own in-house charitable efforts are also supported by a dedicated team and company structure. The company has a community relations department led by Neil Willenson, vice president of community relations. 

“Everyone at the company, especially leadership, shares all these values, but we need someone to actually drive it, get it done (and) organize it. … You have to devote the time and the resources to it as a company if you want to do a good, intentional job about it,” Gonzalez said. 

Kapco takes a personal approach with its giving, Gonzalez said. The company wants to create a balanced partnership, not a bureaucratic process, with nonprofits seeking its support.

“It’s a power dynamic relationship, really,” she said. “We’re a business, we have funds. We’re going to distribute them to smaller charities or nonprofits who don’t have as much funds. But that doesn’t (allow us to put) them through all these different hoops or things that just aren’t necessary.

“We want to sit at a table with them,” Gonzalez added. “We feel that what they’re doing is super important, so we’re proud for them to even ask us. We want there to be a lot of respect and dignity behind that. We want to be seen as approachable, and we hope we are.”

One challenge that companies may face with their giving efforts is employee engagement. Wisconsin real estate brokerage First Weber Inc. has a solution. The First Weber Foundation emphasizes housing-related causes, including Habitat for Humanity. But it also works with causes outside of that realm like breast cancer awareness or providing food to those in need, especially if a First Weber agent is personally connected to a cause. The foundation was created in 2006 and has given more than $3.6 million to charities around the state.

Since First Weber is made up of real estate professionals, the passion for housing-related causes is inherent, said Tammy Maddente, senior vice president of First Weber and president of the First Weber Foundation. The real estate connection ensures they have ample volunteers to build homes and improve communities, but the flexibility of the foundation to work with other groups drives employee engagement.

“It’s really the buy-in,” she said. “Do they believe in what you’re doing? Do they believe in you as the principals of the company, of what you’re doing on behalf of communities and our agents working in those communities? … Everybody here owns a piece of it. And when you give them a seat at the table, miracles happen.”

Brookfield-based MLG Capital has a robust giving initiative of its own that allows investors to contribute some of their investment earnings to a select organization through its Making a Difference Initiative.

Participating investors follow a similar return structure as normal, with a few key differences. Investors can donate all distributions in excess of a 6% cumulative preferred return and a full return of contributed capital to the organization they choose. MLG will donate 100% of its portion of profit split to the charity as well.

This option may encourage those hesitant about writing a big check to a charity because they’re worried about saving enough for retirement or their children, said Tim Wallen, CEO of MLG Capital. He tells investors they make their money on their investments and only “give up the blue sky.” Wallen said charitable giving is common in real estate, but this initiative is unique from what he’s seen.

The initiative and its benefactors have personal connections to MLG leadership and align with company values. It started in 2018 with a small group contributing to Lifesong for Orphans. The small-scale effort resulted in nearly $100,000 donated to Lifesong in three years.

Four of Wallen’s eight children are adopted and he also sits on the board of Lifesong, which has assisted in around 12,000 adoptions. 

“I’m big on the concept of legacy, and changing legacy,” Wallen said. “Most kids who are orphaned or are in foster care were parented by a parent who was in the foster care system or orphans themselves. If you try to change that legacy, if you can have one kid not go down that path and get educated and opportunity … they make different decisions in life.”

MLG in October announced an expansion of that program. It is making the opportunity available to investors, who can choose from Lifesong, SecureFutures, Milwaukee College Prep, St. Marcus School and Augustine Prep. The other organizations recently added to the MAD Initiative are similar to Lifesong in that they aim to give better opportunities to disadvantaged kids.

Like UPAF’s Rath observed, companies are now approaching giving by carving out a niche that aligns with company values.

“You’re seeing many more companies that are more niche in their funding options but also where they’re going to invest their time,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing overall, because it means that the company is more committed to that over a longer period of time.”

Best practices

  • Work with organizations and causes that align with company values.
  • Foster employee buy-in. 
  • Have a dedicated structure. 

This story is part of the 2022 BizTimes Media Giving Guide. See the entire publication here:

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Alex Zank, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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