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Creative Partnerships

Author: Bonnie Durrance
January, 2011 Issue

NorthBay biz spotlights businesses continuing to fund or creatively support worthy organizations and nonprofits showing exemplary smarts in maintaining their corporate partnerships.


As the waiter ceremoniously uncorks and pours the wine you’ve brought, you smile and toast your dinner companion. Not a check has been written nor coin exchanged, but you’ve just made a contribution that will help a sightless person move more easily through life. This is just one of the many ways Bay Area companies are getting creative to keep up their community giving even though their profits may be down.

In the last couple of years, many businesses have had to back off their support of nonprofits, and all are having to adjust their philanthropic plans, but we’ve found some examples—no doubt there are many more—of businesses continuing to fund or creatively support worthy organizations, and of nonprofits showing exemplary smarts in maintaining their corporate partnerships.

A winemaking family tradition

There are companies whose charitable practices, in or out of recession, haven’t really changed over their many years in business. Take V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena. President Tom Davies, the generous host who likes to send his visitors away loaded with his latest and greatest wines and gifts and an enduring good feeling, says community giving has always been the company’s way.

“I haven’t really seen a change in our gift-giving,” he says, noting the winery pretty much gives wine to everybody that asks in the Napa Valley. “If anyone in the Napa Valley writes and asks for wine for a fund-raiser, we say ‘Yes!’” He gives a big, friendly laugh. “What’s great about this industry is that wine just raises these great amounts of money—it’s amazing.” Another laugh. “What do you do if you’re in Iowa?”

The 2010 Auction Napa Valley profits demonstrated just that, bringing in an astonishing—considering the times—$8.51 million, which went to local charities.

For Sattui, the giving is ongoing, both in cash and in-kind. “Some years back,” says Davis, “we adopted the middle school in St. Helena. I believe we were the first business to adopt a school, but now there are many (see “From Vine to Class,” Sept. 2008). We participate in programs, write them some checks. In November, this will have been the fourth or fifth time we’ve hosted the entire eighth grade class.”

V. Sattui brings students in and lets them learn about the wine business as a way to enrich their studies. “So if they’re studying science, the winemaker will connect the dots and talk about the science of winemaking, and I may talk about business to connect with what they’re learning in their math curriculum.”

Davies says V. Sattui (and also owner Dario Sattui’s second winery, Castello di Amorosa) opens its doors to local charities for fund-raisers, though, he notes, there have been fewer of those events of late.

Speed sells, too

Just across the Napa border in Sonoma County, Infineon Raceway coaxes its giving not with wine but the glamour of speed, celebrity names and high-profile events. Steve Page, president and general manager, says that despite the times, Infineon’s philanthropy, which was established by the parent company, Speedway Motorsports, Inc., and is channeled into the Speedway Children’s Charities, remains the same. “It hasn’t changed with respect to the energy we put into it,” says Page, “but it has changed in the sense that the funds we’ve generated over the last couple of years have dropped.”

In 2009, for example, the Infineon Raceway Chapter of Speedway Children’s Charities distributed $280,879 to 43 youth organizations in Sonoma County, but in the “boom” year of 2005, those donations topped $500,000. “The last two and a half years have been tougher,” he says, “but we continue to do the things we’ve done and to come up with new ideas.”

So, at the NASCAR Grand Marshal Banquet this year, Infineon will raise between $70,000 and $100,000 and, in addition, it’s created new money-raisers to appeal to speed-lovers, such as rides with the drivers and a track walk at the end of the day. The track has also instigated what it’s calling a “high-speed blood drive,” in which people donate blood to the Red Cross, then take hot laps (in which, a professional driver takes you on the racecourse at speed). The basic approach, Page explains, is “to try to leverage the excitement of what happens here as an opportunity to channel other people’s generosity.”

The format is similar to that of Auction Napa Valley, in which people come from afar to participate in the glamour and bounty of the Wine Country and spend huge amounts for charity in the process. “What we do is very high profile,” Page says, “and involves a lot of celebrities and activities that people are very anxious to be attached to for a variety of reasons. They’ll reach in their pockets to do things that we can provide.” For Infineon and Speedway Motorsports, giving back is just a natural part of what they do. As Page says, “If you can, you should.”

Even when they can’t, some do

No sector has been hit harder than real estate in this last couple of years, but Frank Howard Allen Realtors, the real estate agency that serves Marin and Sonoma counties, stands by its philosophy of giving first established by owners Larry and Brennie Bracket. “They recognize that wealth in the world is not evenly distributed,” says Director of Marketing Claudia Coury. “They believe it’s part of their responsibility to give back to those who don’t have as much, and they’ve made giving part of the company mission.”

Coury acknowledges that the last couple of years have been difficult, but the policy is alive and well. “We’re still giving, just not to the extent we were in the past.” Each of the company-owned offices chooses a charity to support for the year, she says, and the monies are taken out of commissions. “Realtors, in general,” she says, “are very giving people.”

Another community-minded organization, Redwood Credit Union (RCU), with 15 branch locations across the North Bay and San Francisco and a not-for-profit organization itself, has also not pulled back on giving. “In fact, we’ve stepped up our efforts,” says Robin McKenzie, senior vice president of marketing and public relations. “There’s never been a greater need in the community than in the last couple of years, with the recession, people losing their jobs and trying to make ends meet. I know a lot of nonprofits have reported back to us that it’s been challenging to raise the funds they need.”

McKenzie lists a variety of ways in which RCU gives back to the community, from volunteering, fund-raising, sponsoring and serving on nonprofit and community boards, even donating its Community Room (located inside its Santa Rosa headquarters) to nonprofits for meetings and events. “We do fund-raising through a whole host of events,” she says. “For example, our employee campaign raised $82,000 for United Way,” exceeding the company goal this year by 11 percent. RCU is also an original partner in the Celebrate Community Program, which gives to many nonprofits each year. It’s also helped with funding soccer fields at A Place to Play in Santa Rosa, contributed to Meals on Wheels/Council on Aging’s new kitchen and supported Schools Plus.

“One of the things that’s so exciting is we have very passionate and engaged employees, who are very committed in giving back to our community. It’s written into our mission and our employees really live that every day,” she says.

Some of the giving now is “in-kind.” “We just had a ‘Shred-a-thon,’ where people could bring their materials to shred, free of charge, as a community service,” she says. “We’ve also hosted a free identity theft prevention program, plus a lot of green sustainability programs.” Overall, the credit union has contributed or raised “about $250,000” this year for nonprofits throughout the North Bay and San Francisco, and “provided well over 1,600 volunteer hours” as of October. To McKenzie, this is all simply a matter of following RCU’s mission—but there’s an added benefit, too. “We feel [supporting local nonprofits] is a great source of pride for our members, employees and officials, and has contributed to our being voted Best Place to Work for five years in a row.” How does charitable giving contribute to being a best place to work? Simple, she says: “When you have a strong organization that’s focused on an important mission, and you’re able to engage your employees in carrying out that mission each day, you have great employee retention. And when we do employee surveys, we hear they’re grateful to be part of that.”

Local nonprofits are grateful, too

Some nonprofits, admittedly hurting, are occasionally surprised by modest windfalls. The Museum of the American Indian in Novato, like the hunter-gatherers it represents, struggles to sustain itself through these hard times, keeping programs, classes and culture alive thanks to boons from surprising quarters.

“I get a lot of community service people,” says Executive Director Colleen Hicks, “probably six people a week, who man the gallery, the phones, help keep the park clean or do odd jobs.” These are people who have elected to perform community service rather than pay their traffic tickets, which could range from $200 to $500—a fee that’s out of reach for many in this current economy.

A $500 ticket equals 50 hours of community service. “A lot of people have more time, because they’re not working,” she says, “like the graphic designer who, in other times, may be able to earn $125 an hour, but now isn’t making enough to pay his traffic ticket. He can work for me.” (This particular “volunteer” designed Hicks a nice, eye-catching sign that she wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.)

Donations also come in often as a result of someone cleaning the attic or garden—or just on a whim. “Last year, two different men in their eighties carried in a historic mortar and pestle and gave them to the museum,” says Hicks. And after a recent article about the museum in the Pt. Reyes Light, a donor sent in a healthy contribution. “One day, a man came in and bought a $100 membership. He said, ‘You know, I was just thinking about these times and figured you guys needed it.’”

In-kind is kind

Some nonprofits have been surprised by the creativity and innovation of those whose commitment to supporting the community remains strong. Lori Mogan, manager of corporate and foundations relations for San Rafael-based Guide Dogs for the Blind, mentions four examples where companies have “really pitched in.”

First, Panera Bread in Northgate Mall placed donation collection containers with a sign saying, “Please donate to Guide Dogs for the Blind”: “They’re encouraging their customers to contribute,” says Mogan.

Some donate actual objects. “Worldwise Inc. in San Rafael, a company that makes environmentally responsible pet products, recently called and said, ‘We have dog beds, can you use them?’ They delivered about 200 beds.”

You wouldn’t think a restaurant would be a likely source of donations for a dog concern, but Rickey’s Restaurant in Novato has a personal interest in being part of the Guide Dogs’ family, says Mogan. “It offers discounts to our constituents, put on dinners that benefit us—sometimes a winemaker dinner or a ‘Dine out for the Dogs.’ We both promote it, people attend and a portion of the proceeds goes back to Guide Dogs.”

Another restaurant, Brick & Bottle in Corte Madera, came up with a creative campaign called “Breaking Out the Bottle,” in which it encourages people to bring their own wines for dinner and then donate the corkage fee ($5 per bottle) for the first two bottles to Guide Dogs. “It’s a really unique program and very creative,” says Mogan. “This is an example of a restaurant that’s thought outside the box and is using that money for charity not for its own profit.” As of press time, the program has netted close to $5,000. “Which is great! It shows people are dining out and contributing to local charities by doing so.”

To Mogan, this kind of creativity shows that, even though times are tough and may be so for a while, people continue to want to be part of a good cause—and their participation enhances life all around. “There are many ways every one of us can contribute,” she says. “It can be making a monthly contribution, buying a product that has a connection with a charity or whatever. I think no matter what the economy is doing to us, we can all do our part to make the community better.”

This concept works for the new Farmstead Restaurant in St Helena as well. There, “community” is something you sense the minute you start down the garden path to the big, open-feeling, high-ceilinged barn that the Hall family—Ted, Laddie and Chris—have converted into a casually elegant place for meeting, eating and relaxing. Each month, Farmstead contributes its collected $2 corkage fees to a different local charity. A spokesman for the restaurant says they average about $1,000 to $1,500 per month. An added—and unexpected—bonus is that the low corkage fee, applied across the board, and the restaurant’s relaxed atmosphere, have encouraged many collectors to come and share their wines, generating even more revenue for the charities. Community groups such as the Rianda House Senior Center, the Land Trust of Napa County, Nimbus Art Center and the Future Farmers of America of St. Helena High are some of the earliest beneficiaries of this program.

Stay close to your donors

“One of the key things nonprofits can learn,” says Mecca Nelson, director of development for the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, which rescues and treats injured or ill sea lions, “is, when a business gives you money, don’t disappear.”

For her, the key to giving and receiving is relationship. “We have a really great relationship with Julie Wilder, who is manager of worldwide community relations at AutoDesk,” she says. “I send her an email at least once a quarter so she’s aware of what we’re doing. She’s aware of our programs, and when she has opportunities [like recently sending three GPS devices], we’re on her list.”

Nelson developed a “Corporate Partners Program” that gives incentives and recognition to donors and also provides a means to stay in touch them the over the year, and for them to stay involved with the center. “So for example, thanks to our gala committee member Beth Sullivan (whose husband is a vice president at Union Bank), Willis Lease sponsored this year’s fund-raising gala, and for the next year, it’s featured on our website as a corporate partner at the “Benefactor” level. Its benefits include and invitation to bring 25 employees to volunteer at the Center for half a day in the spring, and it has the opportunity to use our boardroom for free once during the year for an offsite meeting or retreat. So I think what we’ve done is planted the seeds for a long relationship and provided an opportunity for team building that it wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Giving smarter, getting smarter

There was a time when you could get away with submitting your 501C3 nonprofit identity letter, even if it was a little bit out of date, and your annual report, “and that was about it,” says Nelson. “These days, most organizational funders are requesting a number of documents as part of their due diligence. A letter from the IRS confirming 501C3 status is de rigeur, and it’s important that nonprofits request a new copy on an annual basis, as many funders want current documented evidence of tax-exempt status. They also want a board of directors with professional affiliations, and a lot of them want to see detailed reports of board giving or at least know their percentage of participation as donors. They want audited financials and 990s for the most  recently completed fiscal year. And if you don’t have these documents completed in a timely fashion, they’ll sometimes delay the grant making. And in many cases, they’re doing more site visits.”

They also want to see results, she says, and to hear good news. “I think, at a time when people are worried about day-to-day issues, sharing good news and incredible stories about the animals who are healed and released by the Center gives you hope. It lets you transcend some of the day-to-day problems,” says Nelson.

What could be better news than discovering, after a wonderful meal looking out to the sea, that you’ve actually contributed to the health of a sea creature from your own dinner or lunch plate?

It’s done. Horizon Restaurant on the Sausalito waterfront, where once an injured sea lion languished until the center picked it up and treated it, has a unique program it likes to call, Take a Seal to Lunch or Dinner, created by owner Bob Freeman and General Manager Sandra Thomas. “So when you go to Horizons,” says Nelson, “automatically, you get a portion of your bill donated to the center. And you get a nice card with information about us. That started Memorial Day Weekend and is ongoing; we just got the second check last week, and that’s contributed more than $3,200 to date—and a number of visitors, as well.”

Partnership is key

Dr. Jeff Boehm, executive director of the center, explains the philosophy and dynamics of giving and receiving this way: “It’s about moving from a transaction to building a relationship. It’s the way we work with all of our members and individuals. Our story is relevant. It’s something that makes people feel good and shows they’re making a difference by contributing to something that’s evident. They’re not just writing a check but joining a community. We’re building real, genuine relationships here.”

The ways to give are endless, but the common ground in all these examples is relationship—building a partnership. Whether in good times or bad, this relationship, however it’s expressed, is essential for the givers as well as the receivers. It’s the most basic “win-win.” As RCU’s McKenzie puts it, “Corporate giving helps maintain healthy communities, and healthy communities are good for everyone who lives or works here.”



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