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First-Person Account
How to Create a Culture of Giving
Vol. 58   No. 4
Employees at an industrial supply company regularly engage in philanthropy—and return the investment to the business.

By Alessandra Cavalluzzi  4/1/2013
 

One weekday morning, shortly after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in October 2012, a group of MSC Industrial Supply Co. employees left corporate headquarters in Melville, N.Y., in trucks and SUVs. On company time, they loaded the vehicles with donated food and cleaning supplies and set out for a nonprofit distribution center.

Meanwhile, back at headquarters, another group of associates took time from their work to collaborate about what else the company could do to help victims. Besides offering supplies, employees have also helped out at the distribution center. Disaster relief represents just one way we support the communities our business serves.

Not long ago, such corporate giving was not widely discussed. Today, it is in the forefront as research has connected charitable activities with customer loyalty, company image, and employee satisfaction, recruitment and retention.

Despite those findings, many HR leaders still struggle with getting this concept to take hold in their organizations—let alone starting corporate giving programs.

As senior manager of community relations for MSC, I'd like to share some of the practices that make our program effective in achieving social as well as business goals.

Founded in 1941, MSC distributes industrial supplies and equipment nationwide. Our community relations program reflects our corporate culture and engages our employees, who are called associates, allowing us to support nonprofits and the communities where we live and work. Our calendar averages two events per month, ranging from charitable fundraisers to offsite activities. Associates have a variety of philanthropies to choose from.

The Big Pitch

So how did we do it, and how can you do it? For MSC, creating a formal corporate giving program was the next step in continuing a tradition established by founder Sid Jacobson. He helped others because he considered it the right thing to do. Moving forward was more about creating processes and guidelines to effectively and consistently manage giving as our company continues to grow.

If you're starting from scratch, it will be important to have a plan. When developing your strategy, research best practices of companies of all sizes across business sectors. Reach out to those known for philanthropy. Data are important, and there's a wealth of information online as well as historical data on the impact that corporate giving has on revenue. A great resource is Boston College's Center for Corporate Citizenship at www.bcccc.net.

Include firsthand accounts and data in a presentation to your executive team. Align your plan with your own culture and corporate strategy. Speak to how philanthropy will benefit your company specifically. This is how I developed the plan and the charter I presented to my executive leaders in 2005, a plan that created MSC's formal community relations function. Our two main areas of focus are children's charities and human services, and our charter clearly defines the focus and guidelines for sponsorship.

Building Excitement

If there's no passion around the program among your associates, it won't get off the ground. About 85 percent of our associates participated in at least one charity event during 2011. Roughly 43 percent participated in offsite weekend or evening volunteer events that year, up from 40 percent in 2007.

At our company, Community Relations is part of Human Resources. Although two of us administer the program, associates help plan events through cross-functional teams.

The teams empower associates to suggest new ideas, thereby keeping our program fresh. Two events suggested by associates are Bowling for Charity and Candy for the Troops.

Lauren Melendez, an associate in our Environmental, Safety and Health department, suggested the bowling event. "Everyone looks forward to it every year," she says. "In 2012, it was held for Alzheimer's, and the previous year was for cystic fibrosis. Every year we change the cause."

The bowling fundraiser is open to all associates. They have the option of donating $5 to support the cause or $10 to support the cause and bowl. Contributors earn a ribbon and a dress-down day. Expenses associated with putting on a fundraiser such as a bowling event come from my budget, and proceeds go directly to the nonprofit.

Marketing associate Loretta Zontini suggested an event to help military personnel: "When I heard about Candy for the Troops, I knew it was something we could do," she says.

Associates brought in leftover, unopened Halloween candy and placed it in a donation box. The candy, which was shipped to a nonprofit organization called Operation Gratitude, went into care packages sent to U.S. troops overseas. Also included in the packages: associates' notes and postcards thanking the troops for their service. Other than paying for shipping, the company spent nothing on this event.

Last year, the most engaging event—and the one that raised the most money—was our fundraiser for the Make-A-Wish Foundation in December at headquarters. About 400 associates bought raffle tickets for company-purchased prizes such as an iPad, a flat-screen TV, gift baskets, gift cards and show tickets. With the company matching ticket sales dollar for dollar, we raised $16,700—enough to send two children on Disney vacations.

Driving Participation

We find that it's not about the size of the company's philanthropy budget but what we do with the budget that creates results. Events such as candy collection cost little but reap great benefits from associates' pride in making a difference.

Drives such as this also yield cultural benefits for the company. For instance, being able to suggest events is important to associates, Zontini says. Melendez agrees, stating that philanthropies make "associates excited to come to work because they have something to look forward to. It's not like your regular 9 to 5."

Community Relations teams are located at our headquarters and in our Georgia, Indiana, Nevada and Pennsylvania distribution centers. Team members represent different departments in those facilities.

We regularly solicit feedback from associates regarding events, fundraisers and the overall corporate giving program. Through surveys, we know that allowing associates to be active participants fosters a culture of giving and creates feelings of empowerment, not to mention company pride. Our associates even bring family members and friends to events such as charity walks and ask them to be part of Team MSC.

Participation in events during or outside of work hours is voluntary. For associates to feel excited, participation has to be their choice. It should never be mandatory, and associates should never be penalized for not showing up for a philanthropic event.

You may wonder, in that case, how we get people to wake up early on a Sunday for a charity walk—sometimes in awful weather. We've never had an issue with this; many associates participate.

Allowing associates to be active participants in company charities fosters a culture of giving and creates feelings of empowerment.

That said, rewarding associates for their effort goes a long way toward encouraging future participation. To thank them, MSC provides goody bags and other fun incentives, such as raffle tickets and prizes. Roughly 10 percent of our Community Relations budget is allocated for this purpose, and associates say they appreciate the recognition they receive. In addition, we embrace volunteerism at an annual celebration. This event, held on company time, celebrates our team spirit in supporting our communities.

Constant Feedback

The more you communicate with associates about what your company is doing, and why it is important to give back, the more involved they want to be. This communication connects "This is a great cause" with "Why I should wake up early on a Sunday." Messages in printed company newsletters and e-mails and on our website describe past and upcoming events, as well as the charities, awards and fundraising results.

Why It Works

Communicating results and turnouts at events underscores the positive impact participation makes. The numbers serve as great motivators. The avenues of communication keep associates informed and inspired.

And they are proven recruiting tools: Candidates have commented in interviews that our community involvement was one motivating factor in their wanting to work at MSC. They have cited specific information and photos from events on our website.

MSC managers encourage associates to participate in community relations events, particularly on the cross-functional teams, as this participation gives associates the opportunity to work on projects outside their departments.

Joe Manna, the company's director of information technology, says the spirit of teamwork "goes beyond what is experienced during the working day. In addition, one is also exposed to co-workers you may not always have the opportunity to come into contact with, which, again, translates into a much stronger team environment."

Aside from social interaction, participating on teams hones skills that can be used in daily responsibilities. Jerry Dolan, an associate in our Credit and Collections department, says, "I've learned some new spreadsheet skills in Excel that I did not know before" as a result of the projects his team is involved with.

"Being the team captain for the food drive we did in September was a chance to lead the team in a project, which I hadn't done before but would look forward to doing again," he adds.

Eileen McGuire, executive vice president of human resources, says team members have "opportunities to hone their personal and professional skills, including leadership and organizational skill development."

In short, MSC's return on investment in corporate giving includes:

  • Customer loyalty.
  • Opportunities for employee development and leadership training.
  • Higher engagement and retention among associates.
  • Strong ties to community leaders.
  • Improved company image.
  • National and local brand recognition.

Perhaps Zontini sums it up best when she says:

"It helps us make a difference, and it also helps with the camaraderie in the office. You meet a lot of people you wouldn't ordinarily meet" at all levels. "And it's nice because everybody knows that it's important."

The author is senior manager of community relations in the HR department at MSC Industrial Supply Co. in Melville, N.Y.

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