Getting Ahead by Giving Back

September 24, 2010
Shelly K. Schwartz

Charitable efforts in your office

It’s amazing what a little initiative can do. “A couple of our employees came to me last year and said we really need to be more involved in community service,” said Judy Bible, chief operating officer for Charlotte Eye, Ear, Nose & Throat Associates (CEENTA), a 64-physician group in Charlotte, N.C. “I agreed and our physicians got on board as well.”

Shortly thereafter, CEENTA Cares was born, a committee run by the practice’s 500 employees that focuses on charitable giving. Their first initiative: Second Harvest Food Bank, in which the group collected 23,000 pounds of cereal to box out hunger. To generate donations, the group held a health fair in which free vision and hearing screenings were provided in exchange for cereal donations. The committee also funneled all of the funds collected on “denim day” towards their cause, a day once each month in which the staff can wear jeans to work in exchange for a $2 contribution toward a charity.

The food drive was barely over when the committee knocked on Bible’s door again. “They said they wanted to build a house for Habitat for Humanity,” which constructs affordable housing for families in need, she recalls. “I seriously thought it was a two-year project, but we did it in less than a year. It’s awe-inspiring.” To raise the $70,000 required, the practice held a massive garage sale at its then-empty newest satellite office, a golf tournament, and ice cream sale. “Every part of our practice took different sections of that project and brought in money,” says Bible. “Almost everyone in the company is willing and able to build and they’re so anxious to get started. I’m just really proud to be here.”

There’s no question, philanthropy is a win-win for small businesses, says Laurie Styron, an analyst with the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago. “Coming together collectively to contribute donations or volunteer time toward a common cause can help to build a sense of camaraderie and common purpose among employees,” she says.

And that’s good for morale, adds Bible, whose turnover rate has plunged from 33 percent a decade ago to 8 percent. “Our philosophy is that you have to be here eight hours a day so we might as well have fun,” she says. “We really see ourselves as a family. We focus on having a good time while taking excellent care of our patients, and that really comes through when we’re giving back to our community.”

Getting started

Starting a charitable giving program is easier than you might think. For practices with limited resources, the best approach is to start small. Try matching your employees’ donations toward a local charity during the holidays, put a jar at the front desk and begin fundraising for a new playground in the park, or sign your practice up to work at a soup kitchen one day a year. Local efforts give your staff a chance to see their contributions at work. Plus, you’ll score extra points on the public image front when you share your efforts with patients and the business community at large.

You can also, of course, participate in events sponsored by one of the thousands of national nonprofits that exist. Many practices, including the Ankle & Foot Care Centers in Boardman, Ohio, select organizations that are meaningful to their patients and employees. “Due to our specialty, podiatry, we have a significant base of patients who have diabetes,” says administrator Michael Vallas, whose practice organizes an annual golf benefit for the American Diabetes Association. “We’ve raised almost $90,000 for the local chapter.” The practice also conducts an annual shoe drive each year that runs from Thanksgiving through the New Year to benefit the Salvation Army.

You can also solicit employee volunteers to participate in local races and walks sponsored by research-based organizations, including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and National Breast Cancer Foundation. Such events provide a unique opportunity to bond with your coworkers, says Bridgette Overton, office manager for Premier Surgical Associates in Knoxville, Tenn., who participates in charity walks throughout the year with many of the employees in her eight office locations. “It makes them feel like they’re giving back and actually helping people, which is what we’re here to do to begin with,” she says. “They’re usually held on Saturday morning so you get to know each other outside of the work place. We talk about everything, mostly family, and how everyone is doing.”

Let them be heard

You’ll get better employee buy-in, of course, if you look for a cause that your staff can rally around. Better yet, make them part of the process. Styron suggests holding a staff meeting to solicit input. “Be sure to give each employee an equal voice in choosing which cause or charity to support, as people are more likely to participate if they feel they have participated in the decision making process,” she says. “It’s equally important to be considerate of your employees’ privacy, as well as their time or financial limitations by not making public the amount each person contributes. This will help to make the act of giving together a positive experience rather than a stressful or divisive one.”

Once you’ve agreed on a cause, start researching the groups that are worthy of your good will. Scams do exist. The Federal Trade Commission provides a list of precautions donors should take before contributing to a cause. The American Institute of Philanthropy also provides a list of the top rated charities on its Web site, charitywatch.org. The list identifies financially fit charities that spend 75 percent or more of their budgets on programs, rather than on administrative costs. “You need to make sure you go beyond just selecting a cause,” says Styron. “There may be 100 groups working toward cures for cancer, but it doesn’t mean they’re good at it.” Some spend only 10 percent of what they collect on their actual program, she says.

A little due diligence ensures your employees’ generosity benefits the most recipients. It also helps build a charitable-giving program that cultivates a shared sense of purpose among your staff. “Our employees are just tremendous and they really make things fun,” says Bible. “Our philanthropy efforts give us a chance to work together as a team and develop bonds we wouldn’t have through our everyday work relationship.”

Shelly K. Schwartz, a freelance writer in Maplewood, N.J., has covered personal finance, technology, and healthcare for more than 12 years. Her work has appeared on CNNMoney.com, Bankrate.com, and Health Family magazine. She can be reached via physicianspractice@cmpmedica.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Physicians Practice.