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Beyond bake sales: Two perspectives on workplace giving

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When you’re a $13-billion enterprise spread out over 100 offices across Alberta, not all of your 8,800 employees are going to agree on everything.

They’ll bring different lunches to work each day. Some will wear suits, while others will don hard hats and steel-toed boots. And when it comes to making donations in the workplace, there are many different charities each employee will hold dear.

So when the ATCO Group decided it was going to start a workplace giving program in 2006, a decision was made that the program would reflect the diversity of opinions held by the company’s workforce.

The company launched its EPIC program, standing for Employees Participating In Communities, to not only allow staff to donate to causes of their own choice, but to give to causes located in communities where employees live and work, with ATCO Group matching the donations.

“It’s about the level of trust we have in our employees, as they have the best understanding of what the priorities are in their own communities,” says Carson Ackroyd, vice-president of marketing and communications for the ATCO Group. “Through the program, our employees make a direct impact where they live, and it gives us all a sense of pride. Each employee has the chance to see the positive influence they’re having in their own community.”

ATCO Group also takes care of all administration costs, putting the entirety of the funds raised directly toward the benefiting organizations.

“Few corporations have offices in as many communities in Alberta as we do, with so many companies centralizing to major cities, and because those who make up ATCO Group are from all parts of the province, we want to make sure that we have a workplace giving program that allows our employees in each of those far-reaching communities to be able to choose where it would make the most sense to invest their dollars.” Ackroyd adds.

Employees are also encouraged to do more than just sign a cheque – they’re invited to roll up their sleeves and volunteer in their communities. If employees volunteer more than 50 hours of their time with any given charity, ATCO Group will make an additional $150 donation to that charity – motivation that has resonated with its workforce.

For a company that is anything but local, ATCO Group’s project of hyper-locality has paid off. The EPIC program created 38,000 volunteer hours and $3.4-million in donations to Alberta charities and nonprofits last year, with a recipient list that included the Calgary Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity Edmonton, and the Ronald McDonald House of Southern Alberta.

The EPIC program is a strong indicator that as workplace giving season ramps up, offering a model that allows employees to choose their own donation recipients may not only be an easy choice, but also an effective one.

Keeping up with the digital age

With many of autumn’s workplace giving campaigns lasting till the new year, one Alberta company is touting programs like EPIC as the model for future workplace giving programs to follow – a system focused on best practices, employee choice, and the use of latest technologies.

The landscape of giving at the workplace is evolving, according to Bryan de Lottinville, the founder and CEO of Calgary-based Benevity Social Ventures Inc., who feels “it’s time people wean themselves off of the traditional workplace giving champion, the United Way.”

“It’s not that the United Way are bad people, but their model is somewhat inconsistent with today’s people,” says de Lottinville. “It used to be that you gave to the United Way because you didn’t know any better. You’d say to yourself ‘I did some good. I gave to the United Way. I don’t know where the money went, and I don’t know how long they’re hanging on to it, but I did some good.’ It’s all different now.”

Technology exists today, including a platform offered by Benevity, which makes it easy for employees to give and target their donations to the cause of their choice, as the company’s microdonation software is an option for businesses to engage their customers and employees in optional charitable giving.

“We all live in this incredibly plugged-in world, where information access and the ability to broadcast your opinions with your thumbs to a vast audience has created a different context, where a model now says ‘if you’re going to ask people to give back, you’d better give them a meaningful seat at the table,’” de Lottinville says.

The father of a three-year-old son on the autism spectrum, the Benevity owner says that when employees, including himself, make a donation in the office, they want their hard-earned cash to go to a charity that has personal meaning, thus creating a connection between employer and employee.

“I’m not going to give to the United Way, because the model doesn’t work for me. I give them a dollar, and they decide where it goes. That’s not good enough anymore,” he says. “But instead, if you can connect with me, in a way that enables me to support something that I care about deeply, that’s going to create an emotional connection with my employer that transcends the superficial differences between companies.”

Looking at things from a recruitment standpoint, de Lottinville sees an employee-driven, online workplace giving model as a means of increasing attraction and retention of staff.

ATCO Group has established the type of workplace giving program de Lottinville has described, and according to Ackroyd, it “pays dividends for all parties.”

“It increases the ability for employees to choose some of these smaller and more obscure charities that don’t often get on the corporate radar, and also, deliver that money to them efficiently and cost-effectively.”

The other side of the coin

Still for many, when they think of workplace giving campaigns, they immediately jump to the United Way. A simple Google search of the term ‘workplace giving program’ confirms this notion.

The United Way began operating in Canada in 1917, and for many companies, the workplace giving season has since been synonymous with making donations to the well-known charity fundraiser.

For years, as workplace giving programs evolved, the United Way model adapted.

Dr. Jacline Abray-Nyman, president and CEO of United Way Canada, disagrees with de Lottinville’s assessment of the organization.

“I don’t disagree with Mr. de Lottinville’s idea that donors want to know where their money is going. Where I would disagree with him is that the United Way isn’t that organization,” says Dr. Abray-Nyman. “The United Way is an organization that has moved from the old umbrella fundraiser that some remember it to be. Our organization is what we term as a community impact organization.”

Dr. Abray-Nyman says that in the past decade, the United Way’s model has evolved to increase focus on community priorities – specifically, investing donations in programs that will have the most impact at the community level.

“We’re not the old funnel organization where people put money in and we just distribute it, and make a decision on their behalf. What we do now is we aggregate knowledge around the root causes of the deep social problems we see,” says Dr. Abray-Nyman. “Today, we work on the systems-level of change, because we’re involved with, for example, more than 3,000 agencies across the country, in more than 100 communities. We’re able to, very locally, work at aggregating that knowledge for a given city or region, and better understand root causes to the problems we’re seeing in communities.”

The United Way CEO insists that this isn’t the same model that donors experienced when giving to the organization years ago.

“The decisions on how funds are invested are made at a local level. They can be made to groups of agencies, and it’s communicated back to the donors very effectively,” says Dr. Abray-Nyman. “There is some donor designation, and there’s also a huge amount of donors who continue to give to the collective fund of the United Way because they know, and trust, that our organization will work with the community to make sure the money is best spent.”

Despite claims by some that its model is dated and no longer effective, the numbers denouncing the United Way don’t stack up. The proof is sitting smack dab in the middle of the United Way’s proverbial pudding. Last year, United Way Toronto raised $115-million during its annual campaign, the highest total ever raised by a local United Way in Canada.

Even smaller United Ways – ones so small, they don’t yet offer online workplace giving programs – are still finding ways to hit, and exceed, their donation targets.

“We’re very fortunate in Saskatoon that our community is doing well, which has translated to really good campaigns for United Way, especially as it applies to workplace campaigns,” says Myra Potter, director of resource development at the United Way of Saskatoon and Area. “Lots of employers, and in particular, the mining industry, are increasing their staff and expanding, so we’ve been fortunate, because if the city does well, so does the United Way.”

The United Way of Saskatoon and Area raised $6.4-million in its annual campaign last year, 52% of which came from employees giving in the workplace.

“What’s key for us is that we have champions in community workplaces, people who step up and say ‘I think this is worthwhile, I believe we should get involved,’” says Potter. “We give folks lots of great ideas on how to carry out their campaigns effectively and efficiently, so it’s not taking a lot of time away from their busy day, and it’s creating buzz in the workplace.”

And, according to Potter, they didn’t need a large online component to ensure its campaign’s goal thermometer reached feverish levels.

“Lots of people sit in front of computers all day long, and online giving makes sense for them, but our healthcare workers aren’t always in front of a computer, or our miners, who are underground all day, they might not have the same access,” she says. “You need to have a mix, so that you’re reaching everybody. You need to incorporate special events, things like golf tournaments, dunk tanks, even things like a boss getting duct taped to a wall – things that create buzz, that are fun.”

For Potter, it’s important to keep one eye on the future – for example, the local group will be making the switch to offer an online workplace giving option within the next couple of years – but to also keep one eye on what has worked in the past, and hold on to that tradition.

“The relationship, and trust, we have with our community, and our local workplaces, is something that cannot be overlooked when embarking on our campaigns,” says Potter. “Each year, at our United Way, we have about ten folks who are loaned to us from organizations across the community, from banks, to the mining industry, to government employees – a broad spectrum of companies that will loan us their employee for 15 weeks, so they really become an extension of United Way’s staff, and get out in those workplaces and support campaign.”

“We’re all part of the same small community, and we’re all trying to give back, one way or another,” she adds. “We really see this as win-win, and that’s why we keep meeting our goals, year after year.”

Looking forward

As workplace giving programs continue to evolve, differing opinions on the best way for companies to proceed will continue to surface.

You will still see upstarts insisting that the latest technology will yield the best results. People, like de Lottinville, aver that employees “want more choice than what the United Way model offers, because we need to stop handing out fish and focus more on creating passionate fisherman.”

We will also continue to see traditionalists hold their ground, entrenched with the idea that organizations like the United Way will meet and exceed goals year after year – a model buoyed by hundreds of thousands of Canadians who believe charity fundraisers have the foresight to know where to invest their dollars for the greatest community impact.

“The value, to the donor, is that we are not only selecting and doing the due diligence around the charitable organizations that we fund,” says Dr. Abray-Nyman. “We’re pulling community agencies and organizations together, we’re convening conversation, and we’re really looking at those root causes of local problems, so that we can have an even greater impact in the community.”

However, despite the differences between the approaches, Potter says there is at least one aspect of workplace giving that both sides can agree upon.

“One thing is for certain,” she laughs. “These days, it will take more than a bake sale to get the job done.”

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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Showing 1 - 3 of 3 Comments Sort by
Tina Crouse Tina Crouse
This article points out the larger issue faced most often at the international level but well reflected here in a Canadian example. There are organizations that do large, thought-provoking, systems-changing work and that falls under 'development'. There are organizations that do small but impactful, immediate solutions work. Both are necessary but they are not the same. United Way represents the large development piece in Canada: root causes; social solutions; broad outcomes.
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Tracy Marsh Tracy Marsh
When I was with a former employer, I was very involved in the United Way workplace campaign. It was clear to us where our funds could go, and I'm reasonably sure we could target those funds if we wished. Regardless, the workplace campaign is a great way for folks to get involved in philanthropy, even in a small way, and see how it makes a difference.

I LOVED the idea of donating hours and having the employer match it with a cash gift. Both, I'm sure, much appreciated by the nonprofit.
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Elaine Fogel Elaine Fogel
One of the benefits of the United Way campaign is that it gives smaller, lesser-known charities a way to receive important funds for their programs and services. If they had to rely on their own fundraising campaigns, they would likely struggle.
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