The new giving chain

Employees begin to gain a wider role in directing their corporations' charity.

Susan DellaCamera has handled a lot of checks in her banking career, but her favorites are the ones she gets to hand over to a cause - educating deaf children, for instance, or making cultural events more accessible to people with disabilities.

Ms. DellaCamera is a project manager for FleetBoston in Malden, Mass. She's also head of the grant committee of Fleet's Disabilities Resource Group. In that role, she volunteers about 10 hours a month to solicit and review applications from nonprofit organizations.

The FleetBoston Financial Foundation gives grant money each year to the company's seven diversity groups - employees organized around race, gender, and even parenting. Since 2000, they've channeled nearly $1 million to grass-roots efforts in neighborhoods where Fleet has a presence.

"It's a fabulous experience to do the site visit and ... meet the participants - to get that close to the community," DellaCamera says. "What it says to us is that Fleet cares about the community, and it also cares about us as employees."

That's exactly the double message that companies hope to send with such ventures in directed philanthropy. Enlisting employees to contribute to a company's charitable giving - and sometimes adding an employer "match" incentive - dates back to the industrial days of Henry Ford. But involving employees in the distribution of the company's money has emerged in recent years as a way to better target the donations.

At the same time, it can help maintain a loyal workforce.

"The trend is for companies to be more interested in responding to their employees' interests - demonstrating that 'This is a company that has a caring commit- ment,' " says Don Sodo, president and CEO of America's Charities in Chantilly, Va., a federation of charities that facilitates workplace-giving campaigns.

Since the recent string of corporate scandals, Americans have placed more weight on a company's attention to social issues: 77 percent say it's an important factor in deciding where to work, according to a 2002 national survey by Cone, a corporate-strategy firm in Boston. That's up from 48 percent in the spring of 2001.

While Fleet and some other large companies, such as Boeing and Altria, have made employee committees a permanent part of their philanthropic efforts, others are just starting to dip their toes in the water.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary this year, the St. Paul Companies in Minnesota offered $100 each to nearly 10,000 employees to direct to a charity of their choice.

The insurance and asset-management firm set up an online system so people could research up to 750,000 eligible nonprofits worldwide, post comments, and rally support from co-workers for particular causes.

Experts told company officials to expect a 45 percent participation rate, but it reached 85 percent, says Mary Pickard, president of the St. Paul Companies Foundation Inc.

"A lot of people felt like it was very cool to be able to actually designate company money and have conversations in the company about charities that were important to them as individuals," she says.

Health and children's services were the most popular causes. But employees also made some less predictable choices - everything from rescuing retired racing greyhounds to teaching cultural traditions such as Celtic dance.

Aside from improving their image, corporations reap some internal benefits as well. When people work on projects informally and across department lines, "they're freed from bottom-line concerns ... [and] this unleashes a fair amount of creativity," says Michael Bisesi, director of the Center for Nonprofit and Social Enterprise Management at Seattle University.

At Fleet, there's strong incentive for collaboration. The foundation adds 50 cents to every dollar the resource groups give away in partnership.

The $1 million these groups have directed is a small fraction of the $80 million the Fleet foundation has given out in the past three years.

But it goes a long way because it's tied so closely to the company's diversity goals.

"The resource groups ... help us understand what's going on in the marketplace; they help us understand what's important to employees of diverse backgrounds," says Gail Snowden, the foundation president. "It's a good two-way street for us."

Another reason small employee- directed grants get "more bang for the buck," as one participant puts it, is that there's nothing impersonal about them.

"They took the trouble to meet with us a couple of times, even before the formal grant process, to find out what issues we think are important," says Eun-Joung Lee, executive director of the Asian American Resource Workshop in Boston, which has received support from Fleet's Asian employee group for its cultural and educational activities.

On a recent Thursday night, Ms. Lee talked with potential new members at the Infusions Tea Spa in Boston as folk singers and poets showed off the range of local Asian-American talent.

Fleet's grant this year, she says, is supporting a series of antiracism workshops known as the Sticky Rice Project.

It's not every day, Lee says, that you find a company that's "willing to take on those challenging issues."

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