Small company, big heart

It's been a tradition at The Unity Group to give clients chocolates during the holidays. But in 2009 the Bellingham, Wash., firm made the decision to discontinue the expensive (and not exactly healthy) practice in favor of a donation to the local food bank. "With the economy down, we thought that was a great place to give back," says Kari Glennon, sales manager.

Like much of the country, these have been challenging times for The Unity Group, but in meeting with the firm's CEO recently to discuss allocating their charitable resources, President Barry Hanson says the pair made the mutual decision to increase their charitable efforts in 2011. "Our profits are down from last year, but we just decided we weren't going to reduce the amount we were giving," he says. "There was more need than ever out there."

In years past The Unity Group would hold a fundraising event for clients, "but with so many clients being faced with difficult times it wasn't right to have an event to ask clients to give money," says Glennon.

Instead, the firm is coming up with the money on their own through corporate giving as well as employee and shareholder participation in charitable organizations. Among many activities, The Unity Group participates in the Adopt a Highway program and Hanson has been teaching kids economics through Junior Achievement for most of the past decade.

It was The Unity Group's attitude toward community involvement that spurred the company's tag line, "Small company values, big company results," says Glennon, who is also in charge of sales and marketing.

"Because we can compete head to head with any major national broker and bring excellent results," she says, "at the same time with our small company values we're giving back to the community and we believe that that really sets us apart."

The 280-plus clients in The Unity Group's employee benefits division mainly consist of groups in 25-2,000 life range. It is the company's value proposition to be able to compete on par with the top brokerages in the country. "We start with that as a fundamental goal," says Hanson. "And then, with all other things being equal, we live here in your community, we're a part of your community, we're giving back to your community, why would you want to send the money to New York or Florida?"

 

Family values

As a second generation, family-owned firm, Lacher & Associates is steeped in a family-based atmosphere that extends to their philanthropic endeavors. "Our giving approach comes from the idea that we want to extend our family out to the community that we live and work in," says Mark Lacher, partner at the Souderton, Pa., firm.

Lacher is taking a "contemporary approach" by promoting engagement in the company's charitable activities through social media outlets such as Facebook. "Our approach has been to think how do we engage a younger generation in giving," says Lacher.

Through Facebook, the company has asked for donations to Lacher & Associates' Kiva fund. Kiva is a nonprofit organization that uses online donations to microfinance loans to entrepreneurs in underdeveloped countries.

Lacher & Associates' strategic goal for 2011, says Maura Derstein, director of sales, is to have a more robust philanthropic strategy with a committee of employees involved "so that we will get more on the service end as opposed to just the financial giving - so we can be more of those hands and feet out in the community."

The company is even considering matching time, so that two hours of service in community equal two hours of earned personal time. Activities that employees already participate in include fundraising for Haiti and local revitalization efforts.

 

A culture of giving

There's something about the culture of giving, focusing on others rather than yourself, that leads Kristen Allison, president of Burnham Benefits in Irvine, Calif., to want to keep expanding the practice at her company. It even affects the hiring process.

"When we're hiring and we talk about what we do it draws in the right people," she says. "It really draws in team players - compassionate, selfless people. It's helped in hiring the right people and I think it creates a nice attitude for the office."

The 30 employees at the Irvine, Calif., office work with groups from 100-5,000 lives.

It's always been company philosophy to incorporate the whole staff in Burnham Benefits' charitable giving efforts, both financially and through participation.

To encourage the practice, the company offers a $500 match for any employees giving money to charity.

"We think that plants the seed for the organization," says Allison, who is also the chairperson for the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation's Insuring the Children program. "That is what we're about, the giving back."

When a Burnham Benefits employee lost a young child to leukemia, the whole staff rallied around her to raise money for the Children's Hospital of Orange County through a charitable walk that was held at Disneyland.

"They love it. It's just such a selfless event and they actually get personally involved. I think they see it's bigger than them," Allison adds. "We're so fortunate and we have a lot of employees with compassion."

 

A century of giving

The Winona Agency has served the community of Winona, Minn., for more than 117 years. "Being a positive contributor to the success of our clients and our community has always been something that's been very near and dear to the owners' hearts and something that's very important to the way that we do business," says Jeanne Hines, employee benefits department manager.

Several activities each year support local nonprofits. One of the unique activities that The Winona Agency employees participate in is window washing for group homes. The agency has a client that owns several group homes for disabled adults and "no one has time to wash them," says Hines.

Doing group activities together such as the window washing, gardening or raising money each month for local charities "definitely improves morale," says Hines. "They're really things that people feel good about doing - being able to do things for other people."

The Winona Agency is structured with different departments that don't often interact, so the charitable activities provide that much-needed opportunity, Hines adds.

Hines has worked at many companies throughout her career and notes that the active community service and level of enthusiasm at The Winona Agency "absolutely make it a better place to work." 

 

Unity Through Charity

With 30 employees spread across two locations in Carthage and Joplin, Mo., charitable initiatives give the Beimdiek Agency a chance to unify its staff to work toward a common good. Since the early '90s "Miracle on 3rd Street" (the main office's location) has been the backbone of the firm's community outreach efforts. Through monthly employee donations and matching funds from company owner Steve Beimdiek, Miracle on 3rd Street is able to help the community throughout the year by supporting families that have lost everything in house fires, providing Christmas dinners for the needy, throwing baby showers for residents of the local crisis center and many other activities.

Employees often recommend someone they know who needs help. Because Beimdiek agents hold frequent employee meetings for their two-to-1,000-life client groups, they get to know many of the clients' employees personally, says Jo Ann Evans, vice president, employee benefits. "One thing that we do is if we have employees of a client that have had a financial hardship we try to help them out with gift cards and things like that," says Evans. "We try to make our clients aware also that we're here to help if something like that comes up."

Plans for 2011 include continued support of families staying at the local crisis center and aid for nursing home residents.

 

A personal touch

The tradition of community involvement at The Bailey Group in St. Augustine, Fla., goes back more than 50 years to when owner Mark Bailey's father John Bailey moved to the community and became active in the local Catholic Church as well many other activities, including the Jaycees and United Way. The elder Bailey became a founding trustee of Flagler College and even served as Mayor from 1965 to 1967.

When Bailey returned to St. Augustine after college in the mid-'80s, he followed in his father's footsteps by not only joining his firm, but also getting involved in the community through leadership roles at organizations such as Rotary.

These days, The Bailey Group gives several hundred thousand dollars of its revenue back to the community each year. Some goes to nonprofit clients of the firm, and some goes to the contents of a file of requests that's updated two or three times a week. "It's just natural to me. I love it, I enjoy it. It's not something that I ever started to do because I thought, 'Wow, this is going to be good for business,'" Bailey says. "This community has been very good to our family and to our organization. We just love being involved and giving back."

The largest project The Bailey Group and Bailey personally have taken on to date is a campaign to raise capital for a new in-patient hospital facility. When Susan Ponder-Stansel of the Community Hospice in St. Augustine first asked Bailey to chair the fundraising campaign about four years ago, the economy was thriving, but even after "the worst economy I've seen in 25 years" unfolded, Ponder-Stansel credits Bailey with raising more than $4.9 million toward their $5 million goal. "It's not an exaggeration to say that Mark's been a one-man army to make sure that the funds get raised," she says.

Ponder-Stansel is touched by Bailey's level of personal involvement. "A lot of business people will get involved with something because it gets their name out there and it builds their business. They're not really into it," she says.

In contrast, Ponder-Stansel shares how Bailey would take the time to write personal letters to people who asked for donations to the hospital in a loved one's obituary. "The time and effort really to do that personal touch ... you don't see that," says Ponder-Stansel. "I've seldom seen that kind of true involvement at every level. It's touching in a way that makes you want to work harder too."

Among the many activities The Bailey Group's 40 associates participated in last year were assisting at a local nursing home and food pantry, and working with Relay for Life and Habitat for Humanity. "Volunteering and being part of the community is part of the sincerity that we feel is important to demonstrate in everything we do," says Deborah Croft, operations officer. The associates we hire on board, we make sure to take very special care to make sure that they're interested in serving. That's their role."

 

Call to arms

The employees of CPI-HR in Solon, Ohio, have been participating in ad hoc community service activities for more than a decade, but it wasn't until entering a "best company to work for" contest in 2010 that CPI-HR realized just how much its employees wanted to give back. According to sales and marketing staffer Kristi Jancar, an employee survey showed they "overwhelmingly" wanted to do more community service. As a result, the company put a committee in place to oversee the effort about six months ago.

Rather than just making financial donations, employees said they'd feel more fulfilled in their jobs if they could participate in hands-on activities, says Jancar. The committee is looking into participating in Habitat for Humanity in the spring and has already set up a blood drive.

Employees are encouraged to bring service ideas to the committee. One recent suggestion was to give teddy bears to the local fire department to distribute to children when they go on emergency calls. "That energy of people saying, 'I want to do this!' It's so much more palpable than it was before," says Jancar. "People are excited now."

CPI-HR participates in a diverse range of activities, including a holiday gift tree, hosting a shoe drive that brought in 60 pairs of shoes and running a food drive.

 

Paying it forward

What more natural way for employee benefit specialists to give back to the community than through a payroll deduction? At Cavignac & Associates in San Diego all 38 employees donate a portion of their paychecks to be allocated by their internal charity committee.

Of the $11,400 raised through employee donations in 2010, Cavignac & Associates kept the resulting charitable activity as local as possible, says Angela Duron, account manager and head of the charity committee. In January, Cavignac staffers helped to construct two homes for Habitat for Humanity, and each month a rotating group of employees would visit a senior center to serve lunch to residents. The remaining money from 2010's charitable fund went to a children's theater, military assistance groups, schools for homeless youth, clothing drives and other local organizations.

Additionally, the four partners at the firm have decided to support all employees' charitable endeavors. In 2010, $40,000 went to 53 different causes, including the YMCA, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Navy SEALs. "We're all fortunate enough to have what we have and to work here. There are a lot of people that don't have those opportunities," says Patrick Casinelli, vice president, principal. "We all feel fortunate to have what we have and it's just part of our culture."

Although Cavignac & Associates does all they can to reach out to the community and their approximately 700 clients in Southern California, they aren't expecting anything in return, says Casinelli. "You're obviously going to meet other like-minded people and if that leads to business, great, but we don't use it as a marketing aspect," he says.

 

Practice what you preach

At Aflac, "a lot of the money that we bring in goes back out to causes," says Trudy Marcellino, regional sales coordinator for Aflac in Houston. Perhaps the largest cause is a children's cancer center in Atlanta. While most corporate sponsorship of events happens on a national level, Aflac made an exception four years ago to become a sponsor of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, where money from the event goes to college scholarships.

Many local agents volunteer at the rodeo each year, either as committee members for outreach programs associated with it, or helping with children's events, directing traffic or serving as a source of information for visitors.

Starting her 15th year with Aflac, Marcellino says, "In the beginning, my mentality was, 'I'm selling insurance.' But as time goes on you get very, very involved in the lives of your policy holders and in the lives of the people in your community."

It's important to "walk the walk," she says - quite literally when it comes to the annual Susan G. Komen Race For The Cure. "If we're looking to go out and sell cancer policies we should make people aware that breast cancer research is very important to us," says Marcellino.

About 30 local agents and family members participated in the walk when their Aflac office joined three years ago. The most recent walk had 75 participants.

"I'm very blessed to have a team that gives back," says Marcellino, adding that employees are also involved in numerous church-related outreach activities as well as Habitat for Humanity.

"It's very gratifying for me to lead a team that doesn't just go out and sell insurance policies but actually takes that money that they get in commissions and they recognize where the blessings are coming from and they do what they can, when they can, to give back to the community," she says. "It's really very gratifying."

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