VSP Global employee Nikeya Hamilton provides pre-tests as part of VSP’s Eyes of Hope mobile clinic program, which works with VSP network doctors to provide access to eye care and eyewear to communities in need. Photo: courtesy

Moral Support

When social welfare and moral responsibility boost business

Back Article Dec 22, 2017 By Robin Epley

In early 2016, Jeff Rogers, CEO of Big Green IT, and his dozen or so employees all took a field trip from their office in Rocklin to Roseville Community School to gift 12 new laptops to the school’s computer lab. In September 2016 and again in August 2017, he and his team also donated time for network setup and installation of wi-fi for Harvest Ridge Placer Academy in Rocklin. Both donations played to the strengths of his small company, Rogers says, since the charitable acts allowed him to donate time and resources instead of a lump financial gift.

“Their old computers were five, six, seven years old,” he says of the equipment at Roseville Community School. “They couldn’t even do what they needed them to do. One teacher, I think she cried twice. They couldn’t have afforded to do that for the kids.”

Rogers says his company, which provides corporate IT services, proves even small businesses can make a significant impact. “We’re a small team taking on big projects,” he says.

“Great companies identify something larger than transactions to provide purpose and meaning,” Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard business professor, wrote in a 2011 Harvard Business Review article. “Great companies work to make money, of course, but in their choices of how to do so, they think about building enduring institutions. They invest in the future while being aware of the need to build people and society.”

Why Businesses Should Give Back

When search engine giant Google began doing business in the early 2000s, founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page gave their employees a now-famous directive: “Don’t Be Evil.”

The simple motto proved to be pervasive in the culture of the fledgling company, and is still embedded in its employee code of conduct today. Though what “evil” implies is intentionally left open to individual interpretation, the basic message is clear: Don’t prioritize gains over empathy.

According to a Forbes article, a 2013 study by private consulting firm Reputation Institute found that consumers are driven to recommend, work at or buy from a particular company based on the company’s reputation a whopping 60 percent of the time. The other 40 percent depends on what the company actually does. So, a customer’s perception of your business can be even more important than the day-to-day reality of your business operations.

The idea of corporate social responsibility has been around for hundreds of years. American business magnates of the 18th and 19th century often turned their eyes toward philanthropy in their sunset years, setting a precedent for modern moguls. Oftentimes, the most fiscally-successful companies of today are those that have embraced a culture of giving back to the community that helped them grow, encouraging their employees to do the same. But the first hurdle is deciding what form of philanthropy to support.

Choosing A Cause

Locally-based VSP Global’s philanthropic platform is called “Eyes of Hope.” Together with in-network doctors, VSP Global Eyes of Hope initiatives help communities around the world by supporting programs that provide access to eye care, eyewear, education and disaster relief in places in need, says VSP Global’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Kristi Cappelletti-Matthews.

“We’ve found the most success when we focus on initiatives that are an extension of our mission.” Kristi Cappelletti-Matthews, chief human resources officer, VSP Global

Another local corporation, Raley’s Family of Fine Stores, directs funding to one of four platforms through their Purposeful Giving program, says Chelsea Minor, director of public relations and public affairs for the family business. Minor says Raley’s has narrowed its focus to give back to organizations in the Sacramento region that promote health and happiness — values that align with those of the company. Raley’s donates to organizations that work within one of four priority areas: food, healthy living, sustainability and community issues.

The four Purposeful Giving platforms include Simply Sustainable, which focuses on issues that will impact future generations; Plentiful Plate, which deals with matters of diet and nutrition; Local Spirit, to contribute to localized goals — as Minor puts it, “What’s good in Modesto isn’t necessarily good for Placerville” — and Healthy Habits, which donates to groups focusing on fitness and lifestyle choices.

Erica Manuel, SMUD’s manager of community, economic development and education, says the idea behind their charitable and community initiatives is to foster collaboration on the neighborhood level. This past May, SMUD launched the Shine Awards, a program that invites their customers to request funding for local nonprofit projects that will improve and revitalize neighborhoods in SMUD’s service area. Award money ranges from $5,000-$100,000. The inaugural year received more than 100 applications, and the utility company is currently deciding how many awards to give out, Manuel says.

Big Green IT, SMUD, Raley’s and VSP all chose philanthropic outlets in line with their company’s business goals. “We’ve found the most success when we focus on initiatives that are an extension of our mission,” Cappelletti-Matthews says of VSP’s efforts.

Thoughtful Planning

Once you’ve found the right outlet for your company’s philanthropic ventures, the next step is to decide what the program will look like.

Even though Raley’s has a large budget for philanthropic giving, Minor says its model is one every company can follow, because the directive comes from the top down. “It’s a constant strategic initiative,” Minor says. “It’s instilled in us. It’s not something we have to be reminded of.” Philanthropy is something the Raley’s family has been involved in since they began operating their supermarkets more than 80 years ago, she says.

In 2016 alone, Raley’s donated more than $10 million to organizations and nonprofits throughout Northern California and Western Nevada through their multiple giving platforms. “Organizations that are authentic about their giving practices are ultimately successful because of the opportunities that come from the customers and the organizations they help,” Minor says. “It has to be constant and at the foremind of every team member.”

SMUD facilitates multiple community-based programs, including a partnership with the Sacramento Tree Foundation. SMUD has invested more than $1 million in the planting of free shade trees throughout the area. Shade trees cool homes and businesses naturally, leading to lower energy use, which reduces customers’ electric bills and helps the environment. It’s a program that would seem to reduce the company’s usefulness, but Manuel says SMUD is more interested in benefitting the community than profiting from higher electricity bills.

“For us, it’s more than just giving of dollars — it’s expansion and distribution of resources to improve the community as a whole,” Manuel says. “We’re not-for-profit and we’re community-owned, so we have a really unique perspective on giving back to the community. Not just with low rates but also with programs and services.”

Engaging Employees

In order to run a successful social responsibility platform, there has to be “a certain buy-in” from new employees, Raley’s Minor explains. “We are a family-owned business and each employee feels as though they’re part of that family.” Every employee has the opportunity to opt into the company’s employee giving campaign, where they can deduct a percentage or dollar amount from their paycheck to go toward one of three, rotating nonprofits, Minor says. This year, the three nonprofits chosen include Raley’s own nonprofit Food For Families, Breathe California (an anti-smoking and clean-air organization) and iFoster, a group that helps foster youth who have aged out of the system.

Raley’s customers can give back too: Every register has the option for customers to donate money to local charities, Minor says. “Their dollar, 100 percent, stays local,” she says. It sits in a Raley’s-operated account for selected charities to buy food at-cost from the supermarket.

SMUD employees regularly participate in events such as the annual Veteran’s Day Parade, Run to Feed the Hungry and Walk a Mile in Her Shoes, Manuel says. According to SMUD’s website, their employees annually donate more than $350,000 to local nonprofits.

At VSP Global, employees receive one paid day each year that can be used to volunteer for any charitable cause. They can also volunteer at one of the company’s mobile eye care clinics for up to two weeks per year without taking paid time off, which allows staff to assist patients through the registration process, conduct pre-testing, help with frame selection, and make glasses. Cappelletti-Matthews says, “It is an amazing opportunity to step aside from your daily duties, get a glimpse into what life is like in an eye doctor’s office, and see how access to eye care can change a person’s quality of life,” adding that the experience “quickly transforms employees into ambassadors” and gives them a sense of pride in the work they do.

“We have a standing rule that we will match [employee donations] up to $250 to any organization or charity or school function,” Rogers, of Big Green IT says. An employee simply designates that their donation be matched, he says.

In 2016, Big Green IT employees, managers and contractors got together to try and fill 15 barrels with canned and nonperishable food to donate to the Placer Food Bank. “Work hard, play hard,” Rogers says — in the days leading up to the donation deadline, the CEO made good on that motto: “Everyone worked hard, and then we took everyone out to the Jimmy Buffett concert that night to play.”

At The End Of The Day

For businesses looking to give back while continuing to grow their bottom line, social responsibility and charitable giving programs need to be approached with care. Elements like alignment with company values, authentic implementation and employee participation are all considerations to take into account.

Programs like those run by Big Green IT, SMUD, VSP and Raley’s lead to greater awareness within the community of the goods and services their companies provide, and, as Moss Kanter pointed out in her article, “Institutional logic holds that companies are more than instruments for generating money; they are also vehicles for accomplishing societal purposes and for providing meaningful livelihoods for those who work in them.” 

This story is part of the 22nd annual Capital Region Cares, Comstock’s special publication dedicated to nonprofits and charitable giving. You can order the 2017-2018 edition online here. To submit your nonprofit success story for consideration in next year’s edition, fill out this online form.