Warm Hearts, Deep Pockets

Consider incorporating philanthropy into your business planning

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Chittenden Bank Warmth programGathered for presentation of Chittenden Bank’s donation to the Vermont Foodbank are, from left, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie; Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille); Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia); Christine Foster, Vermont Foodbank; Kathleen Schirling, Chittenden Bank; Gov. James Douglas; Gayle Mckinnon-Alexander, Chittenden Bank; and Rep. Patricia McDonald (R-Berlin).

It’s December. Cold weather is no longer knocking at the door; it has moved in. The economy is ... well, less than prime, right along with a lot of mortgages. Business has been taking it on the chin at the national level.

While oil prices appear to be declining, many Vermonters are still worried about paying for heating fuel. It’s rewarding, therefore, to observe the generosity of our local businesses toward those in difficult circumstances.

If yours is like most businesses, you receive hundreds of requests for donations each year. Sorting through them is time consuming and can be frustrating. If you don’t have one, the experts suggest creating a policy to guide your choices; it can not only inform you when you say yes, but also make it easier to say no, when you have to do so.

Chittenden Bank

Chittenden recently announced a trifecta of contributions aimed at helping Vermonters make it through this winter: a gift of $30,000 to the Vermont Foodbank, which has experienced an increase in the demand for charitable food upwards of 30 percent compared to last year; $20,000 to Warmth, a statewide program that depends on customer and utility donations and provides heating assistance for low-income Vermonters; and $20,000 to Shareheat, a companion program sponsored by Central Vermont Public Service for customers in its service area.

Cash donations this sizeable might not work for your business, but philanthropy can take many forms.

Chittenden’s Community Fund supports “programs and projects with a clear, demonstrated focus on creating and maintaining healthy and thriving Vermont communities,” says Priscilla Letorney, marketing manager.

On its website, the bank lists the kinds of programs this covers, plus selection criteria.

This is a handy practice, because applicants can be referred to the website for vetting.

There are also guidelines in place. Chittenden’s fund won’t contribute to organizations that re-grant to other programs, and only certain IRS-designated nonprofits will be considered. A detailed, two-page application form helps to further qualify requests.

Northfield Savings Bank

Northfield’s program takes a different tack, in that it commits 10 percent of its profits to Vermont community organizations: about $300,000 a year, half through the NSB Foundation and half via branch donations, community gifts, and an employee matching program. The bank also makes in-kind donations of computer and technology equipment and supports certain scholarship and community events.

Tina de la Torre, director of marketing and community relations, says that her training at the Boston College Carroll School of Management in Corporate Citizenship has taught her how to strategically align resources with business objectives.

Chittenden Bank Foodbank presentationChittenden Bank presented $20,000 to the Warmth program. From left are Rob Meehan, director of the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf; Tim Searles, executive director of WARMTH; and Michael Seaver, president of Chittenden Bank.

NSB’s charitable giving policy also clearly states its parameters. Donations are made in several ways: branch donations tend to be in the $25 to $200 range; community gifts, $500 to $1,500, with a handful up to $3,000; a 100 percent matching donation per employee of up to $1,000 per year; and NSB Foundation grants. The foundation has partnered with the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger in a multi-year, single-issue funding focus to create long-term results, and is not considering other requests at this time.

Vermont State Employees Credit Union

Yvonne Garrend, business development officer at VSECU, strongly recommends that companies earmark a certain amount for giving and stick with it. The credit union budgets a certain dollar amount per member. Anyone requesting a contribution is encouraged to apply to the board of directors.

Among its projects, VSECU has a program called W.A.R.M. (We’re a Responsive Membership), to which it pledged $40,000 to match member donations dollar for dollar.

“If any company is considering developing a policy, I think it is very important to be very clear what you will be asking potential recipients,” says Garrend. The credit union’s website outlines requirements, such as IRS tax-exempt status and a description of areas in Vermont that will be served as a result of the donation.

Vermont Coffee

Recent circumstances have influenced the board of Vermont Coffee Co. in Middlebury to review its policy for making donations, says Paul Ralston, the president. “We have refocused that policy to bring all resources — and they’re limited like everyone else’s — to providing basically for food shelves and homeless shelters.”

The company used to donate to a wide range of organizations, he says: “environmental, social, arts, all kinds of things.” The priorities had three rings: the company’s home county (Addison); the state of Vermont; and organizations outside the state. Some of those close to home will continue to see help, but for the short term, out-of-state requests are turned down.

Product rather than cash is the focus here. “We give very little on the cash front,” says Ralston. “With this new program, we are making a commitment to, for example, a food shelf, treating it as a regular, ongoing customer. We’ve purchased big commercial grinders that will go to the food shelf, and we’ll provide coffee. They’ll provide volunteers to grind and pack it up for the clients.”

Get creative

There are all kinds of ways to contribute without going bankrupt. You might give your employees a day off (or a week off) to do something for the community. Companies provide loaned executives to the United Way Campaign; you might pay for employee time to bring a nonprofit’s IT system up to date or help erect a home for Habitat for Humanity or clean up and paint homes for low-income and elderly people or read to shut-ins. Collect change at the register for a worthy cause.

Keybank Key4Women presentationKeyBank’s community relations director Lesli Blount presents a check for the Key4Women Forum registration fees to Catherine Kalkstein, executive director of the Vermont Women’s Fund.

Do something fun or that supports your personal interests. Merchants Bank raised $41,500 for Community Capital of Vermont and the Vermont Job Start Loan Fund, and contributed $50,000 to help Vermonters stay warm. KeyBank sponsors the Vermont City Marathon, and its annual Key4Women event raised over $10,000 for the Vermont Women’s Fund. TD Banknorth gave $15,000 to the Housing Trust, and Citizens Bank provided low-income children around the state more than 300 backpacks filled with school supplies.

SymQuest raised $3,400 for the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation through its annual golf tournament. Vermont Clothing Co. in St. Albans contributed custom-made T-shirts to raise funds for Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. CVPS, in addition to Shareheat, gives money to programs in which one or more employees are actively involved. For Share the Harvest, a program of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, participating restaurants and food stores donate up to 15 percent of a day’s sales to help Vermonters in need.

If you can’t mount a program of your own, do what lots of companies have done and send teams of walkers to participate in Sovernet’s annual Harvest Walk, which raises money that the company matches up to $5,000 for Vermont and New Hampshire food banks. •