Workers push for bigger role

Some favor firms that afford them a say in where funds go

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Chris Emmons was her own boss. She led a successful accounting firm in San Francisco and was drawing an impressive clientele.

But 2-1/2 years ago, she left to work as the accounting supervisor for one of her clients, an office-supply company called Give Something Back.

A key reason for the switch: The company donates nearly half of its profits each year to charity - and its employees determine where much of it goes.

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"As I worked more and more with them and became more involved, I [chose to] give up the practice and came here full time," she says. "I think you feel a little bit better about yourself and what you've accomplished here."

Like most companies in Silicon Valley, the privately held Give Something Back faces fierce competition to attract top employees. But its charitable efforts give qualified people like Ms. Emmons an extra incentive to join.

The company's worker-driven giving model is relatively new, but it has become increasingly popular in the corporate world. According to Scot Marken, president of Coalescence, a Miami-based nonprofit and corporate consulting firm, employee-run philanthropy boards are slowly replacing intermediary organizations like The United Way.

"We're starting to see that employees are becoming more involved in the giving process," says Mr. Marken. "It helps improve morale internally, and makes people feel better about where they work."

Each worker at Give Something Back has 10 votes to assign to 100 eligible nonprofits chosen by a committee of workers, and the money is distributed proportionally. Over nine years, employees have directed 30 percent of the company's $1.47 million in donations.

CEO Mike Hannigan emphasizes that Give Something Back is a for-profit business. But he says the company's dedication to philanthropy has bred loyalty among his employees. "They all understand that at the end of the day they've done something for themselves, but they also see the good results of the work they do here," he says.

The United Way still dominates corporate-giving programs. It usually works with a handful of company representatives to inform employees of their giving options. And the bulk of the donations come from the workers themselves rather than corporate coffers. But new approaches are increasingly common.

One reason for the change: The American workforce, experts say, has a stronger inclination to give. Members of the youngest generation of workers, in particular, appear concerned about social issues. While they don't necessarily give more money individually, they often look to work for companies that let employees determine where to direct corporate donations.

But employee-directed giving presents potential problems, says Curt Weeden, president of the Contributions Academy, a Charleston, S.C.-based school for executives charged with coordinating corporate giving.

"If you allow your employees to dictate giving to nonprofits that could be contrary to your business interests, you run the risk of funding nonprofit activities which may be problematic to your bottom line," he says.

Another approach used by corporations: tapping employees' pocketbooks by matching their donations dollar for dollar. Larger firms like Johnson & Johnson match individual gifts as high as $12,500, while most restrict them to about $5,000.

Despite the apparent largess, Mr. Weeden says this approach also has flaws. Participation is often limited to managers and vice presidents.

"It's very unusual to find the common employee playing a major role," he says. "Sometimes it's too limited to the upper-echelons of the corporations in getting the word out. The power of the matching-gift program could be extended ... if it were made more available to the lower ranks of corporations."

Small businesses, alternatively, often do not offer any giving program to their employees. The United Way primarily works with large companies, and most small outfits lack the staff to organize their own programs.

But the Internet is opening up the field. Online firms offer giving services to virtually any company, and at lower fees.

"There are some online giving programs right now in their infancy that make their services accessible to all sizes of companies," Marken says. "There's a real potential for online corporate giving to generate new sources of giving."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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