As times get tough, a new approach arises

By Michael Persson
Contributing Writer
In August, the Meeting Street School in Providence received a $2,000 check from the retail giant Target. The donation was for backpacks. As Amanda McMullen, senior director of external relations for Meeting Street recalled, “We just wrote the grant, and they awarded it.” In other words, the traditional method of solicitation, whereby request was rewarded by paper contribution had worked. More

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As times get tough, a new approach arises

DELIVERING THE GOODS: Citizens Bank employees hand out books collected from co-workers to pupils at Children’s Friend.
By Michael Persson
Contributing Writer
Posted 11/5/12

In August, the Meeting Street School in Providence received a $2,000 check from the retail giant Target. The donation was for backpacks. As Amanda McMullen, senior director of external relations for Meeting Street recalled, “We just wrote the grant, and they awarded it.” In other words, the traditional method of solicitation, whereby request was rewarded by paper contribution had worked.

Also this year, backpacks arrived at Meeting Street from Citizens Bank through its Gear for Grades program. This time, the donation wasn’t a dollar amount but the zippable, wearable objects themselves.

Citizens Bank employees, bank customers as well as the public were invited to donate and they did, to the tune of 14,000 backpacks for various programs throughout Rhode Island alone.

“It costs the average family $640 to send their kids back to school,” noted bank Director of Public Affairs Kathy O’Donnell. “Drives like ours take the sting out of that expense.”

According to O’Donnell, Citizens has broadened its noncash forms of charitable giving. “As needs have risen, and as times have gotten tougher, we’ve engaged our colleagues and the community to help in different ways. We still write checks, but we are approaching giving in a very holistic way.”

The idea of being more than an ATM has brought with it a type of charitable giving that is less detached and more of a social service. Yes, goods such as canned foods, toiletries and toys represent the materialism of this new approach. But more than that is the donation of personal time that has made giving a more humanitarian endeavor. As a result, companies and their employees are lining up to do their bit, heeding the call of their beneficiaries and setting in motion a form of sweat equity that engages businesses and private individuals with the people and the places where they live.

“During our big telethon event in January,” said McMullen, “we can’t give volunteers enough jobs to do. Take Fidelity, for example. They treat their employees’ charitable contributions for say, painting classrooms or staffing an event like ours, not as vacation time or an after-work activity, but part of their workday. Employees are being paid to spend time doing charitable work.”

In 2011, Citizens Bank employees racked up a total of 7,000 man-hours putting themselves to work for their chosen causes throughout the state. O’Donnell puts the dollar amount of this labor infusion at $160,000. “The psychology of giving has definitely changed, and I think that has a lot to do with the economic times.”

As the recession continues to bite, donors of all kinds have found new ways to give. “The items in our annual auction have gone up to 120 this year,” said McMullen. “Five years ago it was around 20. If you’re a pet groomer who can no longer afford $100 in cash, you find a way to give the equivalent, say four hours of grooming.”

Necessity being the mother of invention aside, initiatives such as Gear for Grades, or The Washington Trust Co.’s annual peanut butter drive, take care of the everyday staples that when distributed have the most immediate impact. What goods-gifting has also done is free-up cash gifts to pay for logistics, or in some cases, depending on the organization, the ability to deal with the unexpected.

“We can respond to emergencies,” said Julie Casimiro, vice president of advancement at Children’s Friend. “When we go into a family home and they need help paying bills, or someone in the family has died and there’s no money for a funeral, we can provide. You can’t do that with a can of soup.” The south Providence child welfare organization uses the cash to plug the financial holes that government grants aren’t mandated to fill, and in some cases even expand their development department.

Austerity has produced another positive for the world of charitable giving: the gift of knowledge. Cash comes and goes, but skills and best practices are perennial givers. “We don’t just consider what our community of partners need,” said O’Donnell. “We take the time to see how they work, and if we can bring our intellectual know-how to bear solving problems, then that’s what we’ll do.”

McCauley House, the south Providence meal site for the poor and homeless, came to Citizens Bank with a need such as this. “Their biggest need,” recalled O’Donnell, “was to find funding for their Lunch on Us program. We sat down and brainstormed and came to the conclusion that those $200,000 checks that pay for this kind of annual service no longer exist. However, if we could find 12 sponsors to fund one month each that would achieve the same thing.” Lunch on Us is now 80 percent underwritten through this strategy.

In the main, the more hands-on involvement between donors and their beneficiaries has done something both sides of the giving equation appreciate and recognize as the future of charitable partnering.

On a Thursday morning at Children’s Friend, five employees from Citizens Bank arrive carrying a dozen or more green tote bags filled with books. The women, all wearing matching green T-shirts, the same shade adopted by their company, grab the bags and head toward the classrooms.

Coming through the door, teachers and children welcome the women, who refer to themselves as Citizens Colleagues. The greeting is quickly followed by the purpose of their visit. Books are passed out as children raise their hands jockeying to claim the title that catches their eye. The gifts are a part of a drive that had bank employees contribute books during a company-wide meeting. Conversations strike up as the women and children crack open the books and smiles abound. The women in green move from classroom to classroom until their bags are empty.

Another component to this type of giving is accountability.

“We want to make sure that our intent makes its proposed impact on the circumstance we’ve chosen to support,” said O’Donnell. “There has been a transition in how the dynamic works between donor and their partners. We don’t want to hear from someone once a year, when it comes time to give. The smart organizations understand that and have evolved their development process.”

As the Citizens Colleagues prepare to leave the school, they say goodbye to staff with warm embraces and oft-repeated words of thanks. Julie Casimiro explains what charitable giving in today’s climate has ultimately come down to.

“They do tons of volunteering, here,” she said, gesturing to the departing women. “They are on-site regularly. They know our work. Two of their directors sit on our board, and others work on our leadership committee. What this is really about describes everything we do. It’s about relationships.” •

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