Giving kids a lift

When Boston law firm Hale and Dorr was deciding where to focus its charitable giving, its attorneys and staff were stumped.

Should they target health care? Low-income housing? No one could agree until someone suggested children and education. There was instant consensus. Within three months, the firm had selected four local youth-related programs and pledged $1 million in support over three years.

Increasingly, corporations around the United States are aiming their charity toward children. And they're doing it in strategic fashion. Instead of spreading their wealth, they're concentrating it on a handful of efforts that will help children and also improve their company image or boost their bottom line.

Such social alliances and cause-related marketing show early promise, especially where children are concerned.

"There's a greater interest today in focusing on young people," says Shirley Sagawa, co-author of a forthcoming book on corporate-nonprofit partnerships. For at least two decades, "education has been the real growth area. [Now] companies are beginning to look beyond the schoolhouse."

"We have to establish more partnerships between nonprofits and businesses where both parties feel that they are getting something out of it," adds Curt Weeden, president of the Corporate Contributions Management Academy, a management-education center in Palm Coast, Fla.

While some corporate programs have lasted for decades (McDonald's started its Ronald McDonald House Charities in 1974), the idea has caught on broadly only recently.

The new programs involve everything from preschool education to involving college students in working with younger children. A growing area of interest: child care and after-school activities.

For example:

*Denny's has given Save the Children more than $4 million in the past five years to expand its after-school program, which now serves 100 disadvantaged communities and some 100,000 children in the US.

*Home Depot has helped nonprofit KaBOOM! build more than 20 playgrounds in inner cities around the US.

*Earlier this month, JCPenney announced a three-year, $30 million commitment to expand and improve after-school programs for school-age children. Working with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and a public-private partnership called Afterschool Alliance, the nationwide retailer hopes to involve its own employees as volunteers to help supervise and educate students.

"Every kid in America should have a place to go after school," says Gale Duff-Bloom, president of company communications and corporate image at JCPenney based in Plano, Texas.

At the moment, some 15 million are alone during part of the day, she adds. And its precisely in the after-school hours between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. when juvenile crime soars.

A strategic move, too

Corporations get several benefits from their new strategic focus on children, charity experts agree. Research suggests customers feel good buying brands that support worthy causes. For example: When price and quality are equal, a 1997 Roper/Starch Worldwide poll found that three-quarters of Americans said they would probably switch to that brand.

And children's issues are particularly attractive, company executives agree, not only to customers but also to employees. "We get personal calls and letters from employees telling us how proud they are of the program" with Save the Children, says Susan Schneider, director of national promotions and community relations for Denny's restaurants, headquartered in Spartanburg, S.C.

Sometimes, philanthropy directly pumps up sales. For example, local-telephone companies are racing to wire up schools to the Internet. Besides the tax write-off and public-relations boost, the outreach is also likely to sway school systems when they sign up for phone service.

Drug and software companies use product giveaways particularly well. They seed organizations with their products while dazzling the world with their generosity.

That's because companies publicize the retail value of their donated products even though they cost far less to produce.

But the practice has come under scrutiny ever since Microsoft Corp. was named America's most philanthropic corporation in 1995, largely through donations of software rather than cash.

Side benefits of giving

Other companies profit more indirectly from their philanthropy. For example, 2-1/2 years ago the Sallie Mae company, which owns and manages federally guaranteed student loans, decided to target its giving toward education rather than cultural institutions such as theaters and art galleries.

"Every dollar we spend on education is appropriate," says Albert Lord, chief executive of the Reston, Va., company.

In addition to long-running programs, such as $1,500 awards for first-year teachers in every state, Sallie Mae has created new programs, including the "Sallie Mae Cup," a $120,000 effort to award schools in three urban areas whose students combine excellent academic and athletic results.

By persuading more children to attend college, the company is growing its future customer base.

Just as corporations are catching on to the new-style philanthropy, so are charitable groups.

"There's a growing acceptance of cause-related marketing," says Roxanne Spillett, president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, based in Atlanta.

"We talk to their corporate-giving officers but we [also] have our marketing people talking to their marketing people," she says.

The group now has 20 to 30 active partnerships with major corporations - up from two in 1994.

"We'd rather it makes sense for your strategy than your charity," explains Aaron Lieberman, president of Jumpstart, a five-year-old education program for disadvantaged preschoolers. "We welcome that, because ultimately we think it's more sustainable."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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