As workers become more socially conscious, companies have responded by bucking the traditional philanthropy model. Two local business owners — Eirik Olsen of Sterling, Johnston & Associates and Shelly Morse of The Mosaic Company — exemplify this new age of involved giving.
Eirik Olsen is in a position most executives envy. The real estate firm he co-founded, Sterling, Johnston & Associates, is rapidly growing, having amassed 450 clients in five years. Many in his position would commit more time to the business in an attempt to maintain the torrid growth, especially on the heels of an economic downturn that decimated his industry. Instead, Olsen now spends a good chunk of each day working on what previously was a side project.
Redmond-based SJA’s early years were a fight to stay afloat following the Great Recession, but now that things are stable, Olsen has a moral duty to meet.
“All three of the partners here are philanthropically driven,” Olsen says. “When you start a real estate company in the middle of a deep recession … there was a significant amount of resources and effort that went into just getting the company stable. But as we were doing that, there were always discussions about what we would do in the future when we had the resources and could dedicate some time.”
Now that SJA is on solid footing, Olsen is combating youth hunger on company time. He and his fellow partners have decided that Olsen will spend part of each workday facilitating Feed Washington, the nonprofit he established in 2003 but never had time to fully commit to. By letting Olsen run Feed Washington from SJA’s offices, the company is underwriting the nonprofit.
Olsen’s goal is to eliminate hunger among Washington schoolkids. His method of choice is backpack meals, which are bundles of food for the weekend that are delivered to kids at school. Feed Washington collects recurring monthly donations, then turns the money over to food banks that, in tandem with local schools, identify kids in need.
“We have 100,000 hungry kids in Washington state. I tell people it’s ridiculous that we have hungry kids, especially in affluent areas. So help me take care of this,” Olsen says. “Don’t just write me a check. Hunger is a recurring problem, so give me what you won’t notice on your monthly statement. Is it a dollar? Is it $10? $50? We’re going to take all those and use them to feed the kids.”
Shelly Morse, co-owner of Renton consulting firm The Mosaic Company, also spends a good deal of her time on tasks not aimed at improving her company’s bottom line. Morse recently joined Adanu, a nonprofit that builds schools in Ghana, to handle its North American development arm. She met Adanu’s founders during a volunteer vacation in 2008.
“We really connected with the (founders). They were young guys, in their 20s, who had rough lives, found a way to get educated, but had come back to their villages to do this instead of going and getting high-paying jobs in the city,” Morse says. “We’ve over the years realized that for them to accomplish what they want to accomplish, they could really use a Western partner.”
This isn’t the first time Morse has taken it upon herself to further a nonprofit’s reach. She has long donated time and money on an individual level, and Mosaic has built a charitable reputation locally by working with nonprofits in Renton.
Morse and Olsen represent a stable of executives who are changing the face of corporate philanthropy. As the economy recovers, companies are rediscovering charitable contributions and are approaching philanthropy in a fashion that maximizes employee involvement and control over the results.
At Mosaic, an employee committee meets quarterly to decide how the company’s philanthropic budget is allocated. The company compensates employees for up to 40 hours of volunteer work, and it matches employee contributions to charity, doubling the recipients’ haul. It also takes employee groups to Ghana for Adanu projects. Morse employs these methods to spark giving among her workers, whether they donate to the nonprofits the company supports or others.
“Everybody would give if their heart connected with something,” Morse says. “So I’m sharing the story of what I’m passionate about, and if somebody’s heart connects with that, then they want to help. That’s part of the reason I want employees involved in this, too. They have other ideas, other things they’re passionate about.”
Similar methods are increasingly being used by companies looking to spur employee engagement. Giving cash to foundations, the historical go-to philanthropy process for many corporations, is quickly falling out of favor as companies want more influence on how their resources are used. And employees are increasingly being asked to help direct that spending.
A survey of 261 companies of numerous sizes and locations details the growing popularity of volunteering, pro-bono work, and product gifts, methods of giving that are often contingent on employee involvement. The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s survey found that among companies that increased giving between 2010 and 2013, noncash donations increased 63 percent, far more than the 23 percent increase in direct cash or the 4 percent increase in donations to a foundation. Instead of only cutting checks to charities, companies are paying employees for volunteer time, matching cash contributions, and offering pro-bono work. This approach, says Marilyn Gist, an associate dean at the Seattle University Albers School of Business, is fast becoming a necessity for companies hiring more socially conscious workers.
“When we had the crash of ’08, a lot of the younger generation had parents who lost jobs, lost homes. These were people who had 20 years in a company that got displaced,” Gist says. “That’s led to more scrutiny about whether (a company) is a place of caring. It matters more today than it might have, say, 15 or 20 years ago, what a company’s social profile is.”
Altruism has benefits beyond goodwill. While it’s impossible to gauge direct economic impact from philanthropy, deft executives are directing charitable efforts in ways that will benefit their companies. A firm can better attract and retain employees by helping mitigate social issues such as homelessness. Donating to a university can help build a pipeline to future employees and lessen a company’s future training costs. Strategic philanthropy choices can help a company build a customer base, raise awareness about a product, improve customer literacy, or boost any number of other competitive advantages.
One example is a partnership between Microsoft and St. Thomas School in Medina. Microsoft donated Surface Pro tablets to the school for classroom use by first- and second-grade students. While the school received a new tool, teachers and students provided Microsoft with feedback on the beta version of its OneNote Class Notebook Creator app.
“It’s been a great partnership,” says Mike Tholfsen, a principal program manager in Microsoft’s OneNote division. “We feel like they’ve been able to transform some of the things they’re doing educationally, and we feel we’ve been able to make our products better because they’re being used by real schools in real problems.”
The program establishes a virtuous cycle for Microsoft. In donating the tablets and software, the company showed a commitment to improving education at nearby schools and had a tangible effect in classrooms at St. Thomas. The feedback received from teachers and students not only helped Microsoft hone its product, but it gave the recipients a sense of ownership in the app.Furthermore, Microsoft is familiarizing young consumers with one of its flagship products.
Companies have plenty to gain from philanthropy, but that’s no slight to the benefit of charitable corporations in their communities. In Mosaic’s case, employees and company donations have helped Adanu build nine schools in Ghana, and Morse’s new role with the nonprofit should help secure more funds and volunteers in the future.
“When you’re working with Shelly, it’s like working with family,” says Richard Yinkah, Adanu’s founder. “They’ve invested their time, their money. They give to us what we want, not what they want. They just want to help us achieve our goal.”
Mosaic also has had an impact closer to home at Vision House, a Renton nonprofit that provides transitional housing for single homeless mothers and homeless men recovering from substance abuse. Their empowerment model caught Morse’s eye early on, and she and Mosaic have been consistent contributors to the nonprofit.
“She would do anything I asked her to,” Vision House founder Susan Camerer says of Morse. “She had her dad dress up as Santa Claus (one year) and come read to the kids. On a corporate level, when we needed to secure property, we needed $35,000. That was a ton of money for us, and they came in to help secure that property.
“Not only were they willing to do the on-your-hands-and-knees stuff supporting the kids, they came in at the right time with the financial support as well.”
Feed Washington is making an impact in the early stages of Olsen’s increased involvement. The organization’s efforts are focused in Ballard, where Olsen was raised. At press time, Feed Washington was contributing around $1,800 a month to the Ballard Food Bank’s backpack program — enough to provide a month’s worth of backpack meals for roughly 85 kids.
“Eirik really wants to understand hunger systemically,” says Jen Muzia, executive director of the Ballard Food Bank. “A lot of people give to us and they’re passionate about helping make sure that other people have food. But with Eirik, he wants to understand the root cause and how to end it.”
After Feed Washington has established a foothold in Ballard, Olsen wants to help out food banks in Redmond and Tacoma, the sites of SJA’s offices.
Olsen and Morse are similar in more ways than their charitable bent. Though their actions might be indirectly benefiting their companies, they say their charity is more a duty than a kind gesture.
“It’s an obligation of any company or person to give back once they are in a stable and comfortable position,” Olsen says. “We don’t view it as a choice. It is our responsibility as members of the community to give back in whatever way we can.”