Remember Gordon Gecko, the character played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 film “Wall Street”? His credo, “Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works,” exemplifies a popular view of business, particularly in this time of financial meltdown. But business also has another, kinder face.
Businesses and their employees provide money, in-kind products and valuable time to hundreds of nonprofit agencies dedicated to helping the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, children and the elderly in a variety of ways. They don’t feel this is a sacrifice. They’ll tell you they get back as much—or more—than they give.
Peter Rodgers, a Sonoma resident, is a good example. An artist and brand expert, he was formerly employed as director of marketing at Frank Howard Allen Realtors in Novato. Several months ago, he started working full-time at Montara Creative, an identity and integrated marketing agency he founded. He wanted to have more flexibility and time for volunteering.
Frank Howard Allen is generous in giving its employees opportunities and time to connect with the community through volunteer activities. Still, Rodgers wanted more. “Volunteers get as much out of the experience as recipients,” he says. “It’s hard to explain, but once you’ve experienced it, you realize it’s invaluable. You grow personally, and the appreciation is far more than you anticipate.”
He sees many benefits for a business that provides leadership in volunteering. Start with improved recruitment and retention. “You’re better served by the type of person inclined to volunteer,” he says. Employees who want more than just a place to spend the day look for a business that helps serve the community. “Some employees use this as an evaluation of the kind of employer you are.”
Another benefit comes in getting to know fellow volunteers. When you know a person’s skill sets, Rodgers says, it makes it easier to make business referrals to that person.
Rodgers is a member of the Business Volunteer Council, a group of 25 business leaders that leads by example. Its members share successful programs and policies for managing volunteer programs with each other. “This is vital,” says Rodgers. “Through this group, smaller businesses can benefit from the intelligence of large organizations like Kaiser and Autodesk, with full-time dedicated employees.” By leveraging information in this way, the member businesses create value for each other.
Rodgers has volunteered for Project Homeless Connect of Marin, an event in which 110 volunteers, all service providers, offer a variety of services—including employment information—to homeless individuals and families.
With other members of the Volunteer Council, he took people with disabilities on field trips to Angel Island with an organization called Casa Allegra. He says he spent the time playing Frisbee with people and just talking to them. “You learn a lot from the people you’re helping, and they gain so much. It makes it a compelling way to spend time and energy.”
Business people can also put their knowledge and experience to work for nonprofit organizations by serving on their boards of directors. Rodgers is a board member for Youth in Arts, an organization that provides visual and performing arts experiences and instruction to youth in Bay Area schools. As a board member, he helps guide brand and marketing for Youth in Arts. A trained artist himself, he’s enthusiastic about the Italian Street Painting Festival, Youth in Arts’ annual fund-raising event in San Rafael.
According to Rodgers, studies show that if people start volunteering while they’re still actively working, they’re more likely to continue to do so after they retire. On the other hand, if they put off volunteering until their retirement days, they’re less likely to follow through. He recommends starting now, no matter how busy you may be, to do what you can and establish a volunteering routine.
The Business Volunteer Council in which Peter Rodgers participates is one of the many projects under the umbrella of the Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership of Marin (CVNL). A merger of a former volunteer center and a nonprofit management support organization, the organization continues the mission of both its components—promoting and engaging people in volunteer service and strengthening the capacity of the nonprofit sector.
Located in San Rafael, the CVNL teaches people of all ages—children through older adults—the importance of volunteering, and gives them opportunities to be active and share their talents. It also strengthens the role of nonprofits in the community and promotes professional development, training, peer support and leadership development.
Nonprofit leadership is a profession, points out Linda Davis, chief executive officer of the CVNL. “It requires training and skills. Our leadership programs let them step into a higher level.”
According to Davis, the business community is vital to the success of nonprofits. “They play a role as a resource and ambassador. They serve as volunteers, board members and funders. We’re all living in this community, and it takes all of us working together to fix the problems we want to solve.”
She says some businesses make it easy for employees to participate in community service. Recently, the center added a category to its annual Heart of Marin awards: Corporate Community Services. The award goes to a business that fosters volunteerism and philanthropy among its employees.
One of the ways businesses contribute is through the annual Marin Human Race, in which more than 20 businesses participate by being a sponsor and donating $1,500 and up each. The race benefits about 120 nonprofits and schools throughout Marin County. Davis says that, after sponsoring one year, businesses tend to continue in successive years because of the event’s scope.
“Sponsoring the Race helps many nonprofits and schools at the same time, which, to a business, is very productive,” says Davis. “Also, because we have sponsors, we’re able to give 90 percent of proceeds back to the community.”
Davis notes that some businesses, large and small, encourage employees not only to volunteer but also to serve on boards.
In tough economic times, nonprofits feel the pain. The CVNL is doing what it can to help. For example, it called together economists and strategy experts for a nonprofit sustainability forum in mid-November. Its theme was “How to survive and thrive.”
For individuals who are suffering in the current economy, there are organizations such as the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa. If your experience donating food to the hungry consists of dropping cans of tuna and baked beans into a barrel at your local supermarket, a visit to the food bank can be a revelation.
You may expect the food bank to be a large warehouse stacked with pallets of boxes—and it is. But there are also large bins filled with produce such as pears, potatoes and carrots. These are culls that don’t fit supermarkets’ exacting standards, Executive Director David Goodman explains. Ever notice how all the apples or pears on a supermarket shelf are the same size, shape and color? Culls may be slightly smaller or differently marked. The food bank pays $0.03 to $0.12 a pound for them. Everyone benefits: the farmers get something for this produce, which would otherwise be left in the fields; and hungry people get fresh, wholesome food.
A stack of wine boxes doesn’t mean that the food bank serves wine. Goodman explains that local wineries donate empty boxes that are used for monthly provisions given to needy households, saving $26,000 that the Food Bank would otherwise have to spend on boxes. “This is a benefit of being in wine region,” Goodman says.
Fifteen percent of the foods donated to or purchased by the Food Bank come from Sonoma County. In addition to fresh produce, this includes prepared foods donated by Amy’s Kitchen. Goodman explains that when products don’t meet Amy’s high standards of quality control, they’re donated to the food bank. But Amy’s goes a step further. It’s created a special box, with labels explaining what’s inside—including a list of ingredients—for this use. Having a box with labels lets the Redwood Empire Food Bank share these products with other food banks in exchange for other foods they may not have. “This provides value for everyone involved. It’s such a rarity,” says Goodman.
It may come as a surprise that hunger is a problem in Sonoma County, a community known for its luxurious lifestyle, including extraordinary wine and cuisine. According to Goodman, the Redwood Empire Food Bank feeds 60,000 people—equivalent to feeding a capacity crowd at AT&T Park every day of the baseball season. This number is increasing, as more people fall through the cracks that are opening up in the economy.
“This year, we’ve seen people who’ve never been here before. I hear, ‘I never thought this would be me.’ People are on the edge who never saw the edge before,” says Goodman. “Hunger in our community is invisible. These are people we work with, who our children go to school with. People don’t talk about this. They’ve done everything they can to address the situation before asking for help.”
In addition to Sonoma County, the Redwood Empire Food Bank provides food to smaller food banks in counties and communities extending to the Oregon border. It’s part of a network of more than 210 food banks around the country called Feeding America (formerly called Second Harvest). Napa County’s food bank is a recipient of Second Harvest’s bounty through its partnership with the Solano/Contra Costa County chapter, while Marin County has its own food bank, not connected to this network. Redwood Empire has its own direct programs, and works through 133 other nonprofits and faith-based organizations.
To meet the growing demand, the food bank needs more money, food and volunteers. “We need everybody to do more. If all the good people continue to do what they’re doing at the same level, we’re losing ground. We continue to inspire and communicate with people not engaged, and we urge those who are already doing something to do twice as much,” he says.
Whatever happens, “We’re poised and ready to meet the need,” says Goodman.
The owners of Amy’s Kitchen, Andy and Rachel Berliner, are dedicated to the service of all their customers, says Executive Vice President Scott Reed. Amy’s, located in Santa Rosa, goes beyond simply donating foods that don’t make the cut according to its exacting standards. The reason Amy’s prepares special boxes for these foods, letting the food bank make greater use of them, is that it’s consistent with the company’s mission to, among other things, “provide service for people, regardless of their position in life.”
According to the company’s website, Amy’s is in the business of providing convenient and tasty, natural vegetarian meals for people who appreciate good food, but may be too busy to cook it themselves.
Amy’s Kitchen, a privately owned and operated company, is one of the largest private employers in Sonoma. In addition to the Santa Rosa plant, which employs more than 1,000, there’s another in Medford, Oregon, with 700 employees. A big difference between Amy’s and other food producers is that Amy’s isn’t very automated. Everything is made, assembled and packaged by hand, says Reed.
“A larger company would automate, but it wouldn’t taste the same,” he says. Being made by humans allows for human variation. Further, Reed says, there’s variation in the organic ingredients. “We have very exacting standards. Sometimes the products don’t quite hit the mark. They might taste slightly different.” Because the company strives for uniformity among the products it sells, those that taste “different” are donated to the food bank. Though these foods may not reach the company’s ideal standards, Reed stresses they’re completely safe, healthy and delicious.
Amy’s also produces some products at a discount for the Meals on Wheels program. “Many seniors wish for a healthier choice,” says Reed.
According to Reed, “We’re not a profit first company—we’re a service first company, serving people who want healthy alternatives.”
Besides in-kind donations and volunteers, what community nonprofits need is money. The Napa Valley Community Foundation (NVCF) mediates between donors—whether businesses or individuals—and the nonprofits that use their money to make a difference for the Napa Valley community.
According to the foundation’s website, “From American Canyon to Calistoga, the Community Foundation has distributed more than $15 million in grants in the last 14 years, and currently serves as the philanthropic partner to 100 individuals, families, nonprofit agencies and corporations in Napa Valley. It stewards nearly $23 million in philanthropic funds.”
NVCF President Terence Mulligan says, “We’re the gearbox between the needs of the community and the generous community-minded citizens who want to put their funds to work.”
The NVCF provides advice and information about community concerns in a variety of areas, including children, health and the arts. It helps donors scale up giving. When donors give to the foundation, they benefit from a professional staff and research that shows which nonprofits are doing high-quality work in the areas in which they want to give. “They want to leverage their funds. Rather than start their own foundation, they may use us. They get a professional staff and they can pool their resources for the greater good,” says Mulligan.
In 2007, the NVCF gave away $2.7 million. Of the total, $2.2 million was donor advised, with the foundation serving as a consultant. Other funds are established as endowments, designed to live forever. In these cases, the foundation’s board sets up a spending policy.
One of the foundation’s functions is to advise donors regarding which nonprofit organizations are doing particular work in the community. The NVCF must keep its fingers on the pulse of community agencies. Mulligan says there were 550 nonprofit agencies incorporated in Napa as of 2006. Others serving this community are incorporated elsewhere, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of the North Bay.
As an example of the business community’s contributions to the NVCF, Mulligan mentions the Silverado Farming Company, a business that small vintners hire to tend their vines. The company gives 1 percent of its yearly revenue to the community through NVCF.
An example of successful giving is the Calistoga Community Pool, a much-needed facility for community health and recreation. The foundation raised two-thirds of the project’s $1.5 million goal through matching grants funded by anonymous individual and corporate donors. It also funded a consultant to work with the all-volunteer pool committee and raise money more effectively. The pool is scheduled to open in spring 2009.
Looking to the future, Mulligan says the current financial downturn is already having an impact. “There’s a crisis of confidence in the nonprofit sector in Napa County,” he says. “Donations are down and more people are looking for services from our nonprofits, especially in areas like food and shelter.”
One business that plans to continue its donations to local charities is Infineon Raceway, located in Sonoma County. Diana Brennan is senior manager of media and community relations for Infineon. She’s also on the board of Speedway Children’s Charities, the charitable arm of Infineon, which generates money for Sonoma County youth organizations.
“Infineon Raceway has always felt it’s really important to play a role in the community,” Brennan says. “We put a lot of effort into putting together fund-raisers and events to help raise money for the charity and youth groups in our area.”
As a board member, Brennan gets to do site visits to see the money being put to use. She visited an elementary school in Sonoma, where the charity helped provide 10 computers so there were enough for everyone in the class.
“Third graders were making PowerPoint presentations. It was incredible to see that they were able to get these skills with equipment we helped purchase. They took to it immediately,” Brennan says.
She emphasizes that participating in community projects helps employees do their jobs better. “It helps everyone be more well-rounded. It adds a personal element. You can really make a difference and impact the community.”
She notes that people come to the racetrack for events, and many visitors are less familiar with the charity aspect. Yet, she says, the Sonoma chapter of Speedway’s Children’s Charities has been able to donate around $500,000 per year to Sonoma County youth organizations. The charity has given out $2.6 million since 2002.
“It helps me be proud of where I work. I look forward to coming to work every day,” she says.
The same attitude prevails at Friedman’s Home Improvement, which has stores in Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Ukiah. Barry Friedman, company vice president, is passionate about the company’s duty to the community. “Being a local business, it’s our responsibility to take care of the local community where we live and work. We care about it. Our families and employees want to make it the best possible for everyone,” he says.
Schools Plus in Santa Rosa is an example of a nonprofit to which Friedman’s contributes. It helps supply funds for sports, art, music and other programs the school district isn’t able to fund. Friedman says the business is able to involve its vendor community by participating in the annual golf tournament fund-raiser in addition to its own contribution.
Another project is Rebuilding Together, in which volunteers provide home repairs for low-income seniors and families. In this annual project, 12 to 15 homes are fixed up in one day. Says Friedman, “Depending on the needs, we do various projects to ensure the warmth and safety of low-income homeowners.” Friedman’s provides materials at a discount for all of the homes, sponsors one home by supplying materials and recruits employee volunteers to complete the needed work.
Friedman’s also partners with the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County. Friedman’s is title sponsor of the nonprofit’s Hands Across the County program and is a supporter of its Secret Santa program and Sonoma County’s Human Race.
“We have the same group of employees that want to help year after year,” says Friedman. “They build camaraderie. It’s a win-win for both the nonprofit and for us.”
It’s a formula that works. People enjoy working for a company that cares—and everyone benefits when nonprofits and for-profit businesses join forces to help their community.
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