Yes, Virginia, There Are Big-Hearted Boardrooms

By the time Tanza was 12, she drank and took drugs to escape her troubles. But things got worse. Within a few years, Tanza had two young sons. With no home and no high school degree, she knew her sons’ lives were doomed. Just as she was about to give up hope, a counselor referred her to a program that helped her beat her addictions, receive her high school diploma and job training, and develop parenting skills.

That’s when Tanza got a new start — and saw a new beginning for her children. Tanza’s ability to overcome abuse, poverty and addiction was made possible, in part, by The Ark, a corporate-sponsored day care center that allowed her to leave her children in a safe place while she got help for herself.

The Ark is in the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in East Baltimore. YWCA buses pick kids up from different homeless shelters and bring them to The Ark each day, giving the parents an opportunity to look for housing and employment without worrying about the safety of their children. Today, 19 2-5 year-olds, like Tanza’s kids, come for hot meals and a combination of school readiness activities and play. The program is made possible by the generous support of USF&G.

This is just one example of how corporate philanthropy is making a difference in the lives of Baltimoreans.

Nationally, corporate giving has been increasing; however, Baltimore corporations are not following this trend. “Some of the larger corporations are giving a little more, but overall corporate philanthropy is not increasing,” according to Betsy Nelson, Executive Director of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers. Baltimore is lagging, in part, Nelson says, because “downsizing, mergers and acquisitions have affected the number of players in the area.” In particular, fewer companies have headquarters in Baltimore and, typically, corporations spend disproportionate amounts of their charitable dollars in their home communities.

This is not true of all corporations. Charlotte-based NationsBank, for example, which acquired Maryland National Bank, has nearly doubled its local giving, according to Senior Vice President Margaret Woodside. And even those companies that have retrenched continue to make a difference in the community through their charitable work.

Corporations support a wide range of causes, including education, the arts, health care and community development. Why do they give money away? Most believe in being good neighbors and giving something back to their communities. They want to be seen by their employees and customers as good citizens. Though some giving is purely philanthropic, like giving to the arts, other donations are designed to help the company’s bottom line. Corporations directly benefit from projects that give them high visibility, foster a positive image and promote local economic development. Companies investing in areas like education believe they will benefit in the future by creating a better educated pool of workers. “We’re only as successful as the community is healthy,” says Woodside.

How do companies decide which of many worthwhile causes to support?

Signet, which contributes more than $500,000 a year to programs in the area, discovered a need for a variety of health care related positions, such as people who could do medical transcription, record input or billing and decided to back a program launched by two ministers, Rev. Althinia Hunt and Vera Waters. “Back to Basics” is targeted at women with dependent children on welfare. Skills are provided to public housing residents to help them find employment in computer maintenance and programming, electronic claims processing/billing, medical secretarial/clerical positions, medical transcription and as phlebotomists. “It’s a real back to work program,” says Gail Sanders, Signet’s Vice President for Public Affairs.

Rev. Hunt sees the results of their intense, caring approach. The slowest typist, for example, increased from 10 words per minute to 80-90. This type of growth can affect an entire family. “When a student takes home a trophy or plaque, Rev. Hunt says, their kids see what their parents have achieved and they become motivated.”

Signet provided computers for training, furniture, office equipment and other materials needed to run the program. “Signet’s support lets us stay alive,” says Rev. Hunt. Signet “went the extra mile,” she adds, contributing more than just money. “They take a hands-on approach. They give of themselves.”

In 1995, the first 18 students graduated. Thirteen found jobs within 90 days and the rest got positions later, with the majority obtaining jobs at the University of Maryland Medical center and other health care facilities.

USF&G is one of the companies that has been going through a painful restructuring. Still, the foundation donates approximately $2.2 million nationwide, about 60 percent of which stays in metro Baltimore. “I heard USF&G had money and submitted a cold proposal,” says The Ark’s McNamara. “They came for a site visit and asked how much money we wanted. I said ‘$1,000.’ They said, ‘How much?’ I said ‘$5,000.’ They said, ‘how about $20,000?’” McNamara was shocked. “They had just restructured and we had no relationship with them.” Every $1,000, she adds, covers the cost of one child for a typical stay at The Ark.

“This represented a significant shift for USF&G,” says foundation director Sue Lovell. “We don’t give as much to big ticket items, but we believe we can make a difference in the community.”

Baltimore Gas and Electric Company has also been changing its giving pattern, shifting away from business development and into education and early childhood development. “Our CEO is very concerned about children and education,” explained Anita Jackson, Chair of the Corporate Contribution Committee.

BGE contributed about $4.5 million to charity last year. One recipient is the P.A.N.D.A. program (Parent Aides Nurturing and Discovering with Adolescents). The program is a volunteer-based mentoring program for pregnant and parenting teens that provides trained volunteers to provide services in the teens’ homes. The mentors, who range in age from 25-60, make a two-year commitment to visit the teens each week. The goal is to help the teens become effective parents, boost their self-esteem and encourage them to complete their educations. As measures of its success, Communication Manager Winkie Campbell-Notar notes that more than 80 percent of the teens stay in school. Usually, 70 percent of pregnant teens drop out. Also, nearly a third of pregnant teens typically get pregnant a second time within two years. The figure for the participants in P.A.N.D.A. is 6 percent. The program is now beginning to recruit teen fathers and male mentors.

In addition to a three-year $90,000 grant, BGE also contributes volunteers. “For an agency like ours,” Campbell-Notar adds, “volunteers are our lifeblood.”

Providing services to improve the health and well-being of people at risk is one way to support the community; another way to enhance the quality of life is to fund arts and culture. “It is part of companies’ desire to make their communities a place where their employees want to live,” explains Nelson. “Arts funding makes Baltimore a better place.”

“We couldn’t operate without corporate support,” says the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Development Frank Pisch. Fortunately, corporate funding has been increasing, which is helping the BSO spread the sounds of music beyond the concert hall to local schools through an exciting new program called ARTS EXCEL. The program, already in 11 Baltimore city and county schools, is aimed at relating music to subjects like math, history, science and English. For example, students might study Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and use it as a springboard for examining seasons and cycles in an ecology class or permutations of the number four in math. The program, supported by NationsBank and a number of other corporations, is being implemented this year in kindergarten, first, sixth and ninth grades. Approximately 25 members of the orchestra are actively involved, volunteering their time to teach young people about music.

For many companies, giving has become a part of the corporate culture. And this usually starts from the top down. Kenneth Trout, President of Signet for the Maryland Region, for example, is active in the community, encourages partnerships and chairs the Chamber of Commerce, says Sanders.

Corporate executives all emphasize that their commitment extends beyond cash contributions. Nonprofit organizations will say that the volunteers from corporations can sometimes be more valuable than money. NationsBank is so committed to promoting voluntarism, it allows every employee to take off two hours per week to engage in charitable activities, such as working in schools, building homes and feeding the homeless at soup kitchens.

How do corporations decide how much to give away?

Generally, the budget for philanthropy is related to company performance. At NationsBank, for example, the headquarters decides on a percentage of pre-tax profits to allocate to philanthropy and then allocates the money to the regions based on their profits. “The better the bank does,” says Woodside, “the more we can give to Baltimore.”

While NationsBank has a contributions committee consisting of 33 senior managers, USF&G relies on an employee committee to makes decisions; consequently, the employees are more committed from the outset to the charities chosen for support.

The private sector can and should do more, says Nelson. “We need to encourage more corporations to become more involved. It’s to their benefit and to the community’s benefit. It’s all of our responsibility. As needs grow, the reliance on the private sector is going to grow.”

And corporations can make a difference. Just ask Tanza. She is clean and sober, was married in October and now has a job managing the produce department of a neighborhood supermarket.