Doing well by doing good: Companies put caring high on their agendas

REGION – Every day, somewhere across the Grand Traverse area, a company is getting down to the business of giving.

Banks, dealerships, factories and other enterprises regularly deliver financial help and armies of volunteers to worthy causes and people in need, usually bringing a hard-headed realism and high level of business efficiency to the process.

The program might be the United Way Day of Caring or the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, or some other community activity. At times, they have delivered tens of thousands of dollars in a single day.

The beneficiary may be a young 4-H student developing a knack for the business world, a family with a desperately ill child but no medical insurance, a senior citizen having difficulty paying a utility bill. Or any number of other people needing help.

And it is indeed a business of giving, since much of the philanthropy has a practical edge and respect for private initiative beneath all the good will.

"Our overall philosophy is trying to better the economies and the communities in the areas where we live and work," said Amy Johnson, an assistant vice president at Huntington Bank, echoing the philosophies of many local companies involved in corporate giving and volunteerism.

If there is one overriding theme among the donors' activities, it's education. Mel Cooke, owner of Mel Cooke Sheet Metal Inc., a Kalkaska fabricator and installer of ducts in schools and other institutions, has sat on a number of northern Michigan college boards over the years. He has also supported the Northwestern Michigan College scholarship program for a decade.

"I want to see NMC grow and expand. It has been a great service to the community," he said.

Traverse City State Bank has helped more than 150 organizations in the last year, either with volunteer time or sponsorships. But its own Young Entrepreneurs Grant program best captures its philosophy, said Onlee Bowden, the bank's director of marketing and community relations.

In the four-year-old program, students in elementary, middle and high school compete for grants to help them raise and market their 4-H livestock. They go through a formal application and interview process with bank officials.

"That gives them life skills," she said. "They have a budget they have to work out, and they have to present their philosophy. We are giving them an opportunity to do an interview."

Out of nearly 20 applicants, six will get the seed money and then will work closely with the bank staff until their animal is sold in late summer.

"We go out to their farm or wherever they keep the animal and we talk to them about the importance of a budget and of savings," Bowden said.

Financial literacy is also a high priority at Huntington Bank. It has a program to teach grade school students how to handle their finances. Now underway at Old Mission Peninsula and East Jordan schools, the students interview for a position and then run their own bank at their school.

Huntington Bank volunteers play an active role in its projects. The bank doesn't specify the amount of company time that they can or should use for volunteering. A week or more of release time isn't unusual, however. And it's not uncommon for the work to spill over into employees' own time.

Huntington employees donated more than $14,000 to United Way organizations in northwest Michigan in 2006, and the bank matches these sums, Johnson said. Huntington's staff also raised $16,000 for the American Cancer Society's Relays for Life last year.

The Financial & Investment Management Group in Traverse City offers its 37 employees time off, usually a week to two weeks a year, for charitable work. Depending on their interests, they might volunteer locally or help out an impoverished community as far away as Central America or Africa.

"All I've done is create an environment where employees can express their good intentions and not worry about whether they have a job when they get back to work," said Paul Sutherland, the fund management firm's president and chief investment officer.

About a dozen are involved in Safe Passage, a non-profit organization that provides education and support for children and their families in Guatemala City's desperate slums.

Sutherland, who is Safe Passage's chairman, started volunteering with the non-profit about five years ago, after coming under the spell of its late founder, Hanley Denning. He saw the educator as an antidote to impractical programs that leave the Third World's poor more dependent on relief agencies than ever.

The volunteers' support has been more important than ever at Safe Passages since the death of the 36-year-old Denning in a car accident last month. It's a tribute to her administrative skills that she left behind a corps of volunteers and a board of directors to continue the non-profit's mission.

Safe Passage volunteers perform a range of tasks for children and families in Guatemala. One day, they might be washing dishes at the school, the next they might be teaching English or another subject. "People think there's a romance to it, but once you get down there, it is real work," Sutherland said.

Sutherland sees education as the main vehicle to improve the children's lives. "These are kids who would never be able to go to school," he said. "They live on a dump, and their parents get all their sustenance from a dump. I went down there and said, 'I think I can help make a difference.'"

Johnson & Associates, an independent insurance agency, delivers good works through a partnership with one of its insurers, the Hastings Mutual Insurance Company. By virtue of its performance, Johnson & Associates qualifies for a Hastings Mutual Community Foundation program that funnels funds to local communities. The program is restricted to agencies achieving a high level of sales and writing high-quality business.

The agency made a formal application to the foundation to obtain funds for the Father Fred Foundation. It uses the money to help people pay their utility bills.

"The visions of both those organizations had to parallel one another, for any type of monies to change hands," said Geri Johnson, the agency's owner. "It was the vision of Hastings Mutual Community Foundation is to help people in the community who are disadvantaged."

Many programs exhibit the same kind of pure, if practical, altruism. Cellular One recycles cell phones for sale or salvage, generating the funds for organ transplantation.

"We also donate wireless services to the Women's Resource Center, so their advocates can be reached 24 hours a day. And we donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters to help with their operations," Marketing Manager Sara Harding said. "Their advocates are on the road a lot, and they can't necessarily afford to have wireless service."

The Hagerty Insurance Agency has donated to a wide range of organizations, including the Women's Resource Center, American Red Cross, Child and Family Services, the Father Fred Foundation, and many others. Many of the gifts are made through the Hagerty Family Fund at the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

It also has made a 10-year pledge of $500,000 to the Hagerty Center, a waterfront venue for conferences and education, at the NMC Great Lakes Campus, and two five-year pledges of $25,000 for the City Opera House, among other gifts. In addition, the agency offers all employees who've been with the company at least two years up to two days off a year to volunteer at any non-profit.

Bill Marsh Automotive Group has been active in the community for decades, supporting a range of philanthropic programs such as Toys for Tots, the House of Hope, the Father Fred Foundation, and more.

Michael Kent of Michael Kent Communications, who worked for the company for nearly eight years and continues to handle marketing for the dealership group, said Bill Marsh sets a strong example.

"I was on the board of directors for Toys for Tots, House of Hope and so many other organizations, and they never complained that I spent too much time on community involvement."

"In many, many cases, we provided support for individual cases, people with children who had gotten sick and didn't have insurance," he said. "We have had fund-raisers where we have raised tens of thousands of dollars in a single-day event to help somebody who was ill." BN