Philanthropy: How can you turn doing good for the community into doing good for your own business?

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Garver elementary school
Celebrating the Chain Reaction Challenge (Garver)

How can contractors, architects and engineers manage philanthropy to do good for the community, while balancing charitable objectives with their bottom lines.

A virtual panel of AEC practitioners discussed the challenging dynamic of philanthropy and business objectives at the virtual Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) Build Business conference earlier this month.

Moderator Donna L. Jacubowsicz of Wade Trim, based in Southfield, Michigan, posed the fundamental questions: “Does corporate philanthropy really make a difference in retaining and attracting the best employees? How can firms let the world know about philanthropic activities without sounding self-serving?”

Laura Nick of Garver, which specializes in engineering, architecture, planning and environmental services, described how the organization turned its 100th anniversary celebration into a philanthropic, marketing and business development bonanza.

The idea for the Arkansas-based multidisciplinary practice with 35 offices in several southern US states: Create an engineering challenge for 100 middle schools in communities within Garver’s market area. Each school would be given a “chain reaction” kit, and set out to create the most effective domino-type experience.

Nick said the idea proved to be phenomenally successful. Engineers within the local Garver offices selected the schools, and after the company provided the kits and some money to each school, often local staff engineers connected with the schools and worked with the students in developing the chain reaction projects.

This helped achieve a key philanthropic goal: Encouraging young people to consider science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based (STEM) careers. Winning schools received additional cash prizes.

Local media in the various markets picked up on the idea, giving Garver valuable free publicity. The initiative helped in recruitment. “We were able to increase our staff by over 42 percent last year” — that’s more than 200 new employees, she said.

More than 14,000 students were reached. Web traffic increased by more than 40b per cent and social media engagements increased by 30 per cent.

As well, Nick said, by connecting with school and local officials in the relevant communities, specifically Layton Oklahoma, Garver acquired valuable additional business.

“We hadn’t been doing any business there but we really wanted to,” she said. Garver encouraged the city’s mayor to participate in the event at the local school. “And guess what, we are now doing significant work for that city and it’s going to be a long term partnership and it wouldn’t happen without this outreach campaign.”

Other speakers including Dawn Lyman of Barton Marlow and Adrienne Luce of HMC Architects discussed how the companies operated their philanthropic initiatives. Barton Marlow for example, has a charitable foundation, allowing an ongoing budget and the ability to support donations in perpetuity.

It is important to make sure this type of foundation follow tax rules and not used for self-serving purposes. For example, it would be inappropriate for foundation funds to be used for a charity golf tournament if the primary purpose of the event relates to business development.

However, the speakers said foundation contributions can be designated to worthy ideas and projects and, most effectively, matching grant programs – where employees can select the charities they wish to support and the company provides matching contributions.

Several audience members on the ZOOM chat asked how smaller to middle-sized practices could introduce philanthropy programs. Luce suggested the best approach would be to set simple, small objectives – perhaps a simple charity matching program, or participation in a noon-time community service project. The speakers also said it is vital for the businesses’ senior management to be engaged and support the initiatives, and that there are software tools and resources to help manage the administrative burden.

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