Unemployment ran high, food costs were rising, the economy was shaky and social need seemed to be exploding.
Here we are five years later, and what’s changed? On most of those fronts, very little. But neither has the corporate commitment to making Kansas City a better place to live. Once again, we are able to bring you stories of companies that have taken their stand and declared: No matter how overwhelming the need, we’re going to do something about it.
From pro bono work to direct financial grants, from board service to gardening, from the C-suites to the front-line workers, these companies, their leaders and their employees have embraced the challenge in Kansas City, across the region—even from their offices around the world. They get it done by being strategic in their giving and in their service, and by infusing into their philanthropy the kinds of efficiencies that mark their business operations.
And we’re all the better for their example they’ve shown in how to create a culture of service. During this holiday season, when we pause to consider the blessings we enjoy, we would do well to count these companies among them.
Black & Veatch
Herewith, a few figures that demonstrate the outsize civic contribution of Black & Veatch: In 2012, the combined revenues of the region’s 100 biggest private companies came to just shy of $105 billion. Black & Veatch’s share of that was 3.3 percent. This year, employees from the Overland Park engineering giant contributed 4.7 percent of the $37.3 million United Way campaign—a rate nearly half again as big as their revenues might suggest, even before factoring in the region’s public companies.
That’s an impressive local contribution for a company that has a global footprint not just with its business, but with its philanthropy.
“Black & Veatch’s mission is Build-ing a World of Difference, so the name of our foundation reflects that mission,” says Lori Kelleher, the firm’s chief human resources officer. A long history of giving back to the communities where the firm operates took on a more formal structure with formation of the foundation in 2007. “By combining our professionals’ volunteer time, talent and money along with funding the company provides, it achieves the strongest result,” Kelleher said. “This, in turn, greatly benefits the more than 100 agencies we work with.”
Those beneficiaries are a who’s who of need in KC, hailing from four focus areas of education, human/health services, sustainability initiatives and public safety. Among the outcomes Kelleher cited:
And those are just for starters. Yet there is something that benefits the organization, as well, from such a broad and deep structure. “We see tremendous team-building benefits and support of efforts worldwide and we organize around certain global events that allow us to build that collaboration,” Kelleher said. “For example, we had more than 800 professionals from 30 different offices participate in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Clean-up Day in 2013. Engineers Without Borders and several Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) related efforts allow us to support causes from our more than 100 offices around the world.”
At that level, success is grounded in focus and structure. “An important consideration is that the folks at Black & Veatch believe charitable giving is part of the company’s strategy,” Kelleher says. “It aligns with the vision, mission and values of the company, and it carries forward in everything that we do as a firm.
“We have found that when we align the interests of our professionals with the resources the company can provide, we achieve the greatest possible results.”
Passion about the cause, says Harry Herington, was baked into the cake when NIC, Inc., was founded as a provider of e-commerce structures for governmental organizations. It’s not surprising, then, that passion underpins the company’s philanthropy.
“Our corporate philanthropy is all about passion—a foundational element to what started our company, what our charitable giving is based on, the heart of our culture, and what is fueling our success,” says Herington, the company’s CEO and chairman. “I tell every employee that volunteering should be driven by his or her unique passion. We all have something that we care about. We must find a way to take our time and talents and invest them in what we care most about.”
And nothing drives that message like leading by example. Herington, a Harley buff, started a personal tour of NIC offices a few years ago, biking to every state capital for “Ask the CEO” sessions with employees. A former law enforcement officer himself, Herington had plenty of time to think while navigating those lane miles, and that thinking spawned Ride4Cops, an effort to raise awareness about the dangers confronting law enforcement personnel and to support families of fallen officers. Since its inception, Ride4Cops events in 28 state capitals and Washington, D.C., have helped raise more than $500,000 for those causes.
Across the organization, NIC’s charitable giving unifies 775 employees spread over 35 states, Herington says. Some beneficiaries are large national non-profits like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and the American Red Cross, which collected more than 135 units of blood from NIC employees nationwide last year.
But special attention is also paid to individual employees and departments who give both financially and with volunteer hours, including hours logged by the executive team in roll-up-the-sleeves tasks. Herington himself leads the committee that selects one employee as the “Citizen of the Year” and one department as the “Team of the Year.” As added incentive, the Citizen of the Year receives a fully paid, week-long trip for two to any state where NIC does business (Hawaii is a favorite destination). Both awards, he said, include donations of $10,000 in their name to the charities of their choice.
“We are a ‘public service’ company at heart,” Herington says. “The online government services we build are a public service that makes government more accessible for everyone. We have local teams based in every capital city where we do business, and those employees are extremely invested in making their community a better place, whether it is launching more efficient online government services or volunteering with local charities.”
Neither the charitable giving nor board service, he said, constitute resume-builders at NIC. “Companies should encourage their employees to identify what they care deeply about and then find a way to take that interest and give back to their community,” he said. Steering a company’s entrepreneurial spirit into such ventures, then, and harnessing the spirit of a corporate culture are keys to success, he said: “A certain level of authenticity is important when giving back to the community. It should be genuine.”
Sprint Digital Team
Corporate philanthropy has many facets, most often with direct financial contributions or pro bono services. But there’s something particularly meaningful about just getting your hands dirty for a good cause. Witness the contributions of the digital team from Sprint on behalf of the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Kansas City.
“Although the professional services and the cooking and cleaning are different ways we support the House, they have similar rewards for our team and the House,” says Scott Zalaznik, the vice president of Sprint Digital who oversees that team’s work for the telecom giant. “Whether we are donating our professional expertise or cooking or cleaning out fridges, weeding the garden or mopping the storage-room floor, our efforts are focused on the kids and families who rely on the Ronald McDonald House. We support the house in so many ways, but the reason is always the same: As much as we give, we get back.” Being committed to that charity, and through it, to the community, he says, “strengthens our ties on a very personal level with Kansas City.”
Sprint Digital adopted that mission in 2011, he said, and every month it sends teams to take part in the organization’s Cooking for Kids Program, providing roughly 100 meals at each outing. “Additionally, we use our online and social media expertise to advise them on improving their fundraising efforts and raising awareness,” Zalaznik said. And in last summer’s Simmer Down Challenge, Sprint Digital challenged other corporations to a contest, with proceeds going to Ronald McDonald House, as do proceeds from staff members’ contributions to Red Friday paper sales in the Fall.
Part of the success of this initiative has been a subtle shift in emphasis. “Sprint Digital has moved beyond team builders—where the activity is centered around the team itself—and focuses instead on supporting the communities where we work and live,” Zalaznik said. “We’ve found that “grat-itude” is a verb and our strongest team builders have been when our people give of themselves. It’s tremendously rewarding and that carries over in our daily work at Sprint.”
Seeing the direct results of the team’s efforts has also proven inspirational. A “Best Deviled Egg Contest” in the spring dovetailed with packing day for a young girl who was leaving after a long stay, Zalaznik recalls. The girl’s mother mentioned off-hand that the team would have to hide them from her husband; otherwise, he’d eat them before guests arrived. “What the father didn’t know was, we had made over 200 deviled eggs of all flavors, from passed-down recipes to gourmet editions,” Zalaznik said. “When he came downstairs and saw all the eggs, his face just lit up.” On a tiny scale, it was a brief moment of joy for one individual, Zalaznik said, but for the team, “that was a truly rewarding moment. … The principle that applies at the individual level—if you want to feel good, then do good, applies at the larger team and corporate level.”
Corporate philanthropy is in the DNA of the digital marketing wizards at VML, and it is passed on to succeeding generations of staffers before they’re even on the payroll.
Here’s how John Mulvihill, executive director of the VML Foundation, puts it: “It’s part of the first discussion we have with new employees: ‘You need to know that VML is over the moon in terms of helping causes, and it’s not only the causes that people here are passionate about—if you have a cause, we encourage you to share that and we’ll jump on board. But if you want to put on the 9-to-5 blinders and not hear that rah-rah, VML is not the place for you.’ That is fundamental to the hiring process,” Mulvihill says.
And because that message is followed up as part of every conversation about employee life and employee culture, he says, VML is extraordinarily engaged in pro bono work for many non-profit organizations, and in direct contributions to others. Some of those are referred to as VML Foundation Cornerstone Partnerships, and include Children’s Mercy Hospital, Heartland Habitat for Humanity, Head for the Cure Foundation, the Juvenile Dia-betes Research Foundation, and Shave to Shave, which funds the local chapter of the American Cancer Society and its Hope Lodge operations. Financial commitments to those organizations, like all who benefit from VML’s outreach, are reviewed annually, Mulvihill said.
Over and above the financial gifts, the company contributes expertise on behalf of non-profits, to the tune of a whopping 10,000 hours a year in recent years—all of it booked through the system just like the paying gigs, complete with job numbers. This year, however, the figure ran past 15,000 hours because so many employees jumped on board to support an educational effort called Minddrive. That’s a Kansas City-based educational non-profit that engages urban students in both engineering and technical challenges of designing and building fuel-efficient vehicles whose power sources are governed, quite literally, by social media “triggers.” For a digital marketing company, that philanthropic mission meshed with the company’s own profit motive.
Since the company’s founding in 1992, every Tuesday morning has started with half-hour meetings, all hands on deck. Those huddles include at least one personal story involving support for a community partner by a staffer or group of them. Those accounts have proven powerful and inspirational. Nearly two years ago, Mulvihill said, a staff member’s 8-month-old son was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Some of his co-workers created VML’s Team in Training and raised more than $27,500 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The youngster still faces serious health challenges, Mulvihill said, but is doing great and has become a rallying point for the entire company.
“VML has been incredibly fortunate to be a successful, growing enterprise,” Mulvihill says. “We consider it a privilege and an honor to support so many remarkable nonprofits and community organizations that help make Kansas City a special place to live, work and raise our families.”