Businesses find giving back to their communities can lead to lasting change for the better
For years, volunteer firefighters who worked at Task Force Tips in Valparaiso responded to local fire and ambulance calls during the day.
That changed when the company’s insurance carrier said the risk was too great for employees to continue responding to calls during work hours. The company couldn’t afford to take on the workers’ compensation risk if an employee got hurt while responding to a call during work hours and having employees, particularly salaried employees, clock out while responding to an emergency.
Stewart McMillan, CEO of Task Force Tips, set out to change things. Recognizing that his company benefited from the expertise of firefighters on staff and that almost 80% of fire departments in the Midwest are staffed by volunteers, he lobbied state lawmakers to help them.
McMillan requested that volunteer firefighters be allowed to respond to calls during work hours, and still receive pay, but employers would be exempt from workers’ compensation claims if an employee is hurt while responding to a fire call. His efforts paid off as a law was passed and took effect July 1.
McMillan’s motivation was to help the community.
“It wasn’t for us,” McMillan said, who served as a volunteer firefighter with the Washington Township Volunteer Fire Department for 50 years. “I wanted to make a change that would affect the whole state and encourage other employers to let their people go and do this.”
He said being a volunteer firefighter is a unique way of giving back to the community.
Benefits of giving
Across Northwest Indiana, companies are finding ways to give back — whether it’s responding to a fire call, assembling snack packs for children through local YMCA programs, giving away meals at Thanksgiving, helping build a playground, working on a Habitat for Humanity project or raising money to benefit a food bank or the United Way.
“Our company founders thought giving back was just good business, and ever since, it’s been part of our company culture and who we are,” said Jeff Strack, president and CEO of Strack & Van Til, which has 21 grocery stores across Northwest Indiana. “The businesses here in Northwest Indiana that are thriving have similar philosophies on philanthropy.”
In Task Force Tips’ case, a company that manufactures firefighting equipment, allowing employees to volunteer on local fire departments — and respond to calls during work hours — seemed like a natural fit. Since the change in state law, employees at Task Force Tips who also serve as volunteer firefighters are back to responding to calls during the day.
Firefighting isn’t the only way Task Force Tips gives back. Employees also participate in Christmas in April, an event where the company pays its employees to go out in the community and volunteer by helping elderly or disabled residents with household projects.
“Companies realize that this isn’t a one-way street,” McMillan said. “The benefits gained by participating in a community come back to you many-fold.”
Across the nation, corporate leaders have found that giving back has its benefits. A company’s charitable giving — either through finances or time — helps build a good reputation, benefits the community the company serves, builds employee morale and can even aid in networking or making connections within the community, industry leaders note.
A recent Fortune magazine report examined one study on the giving practices of hundreds of companies and their more than 350,000 employees. The study found that giving back is often associated with higher levels of employee retention, happier employees and employees willing to represent their brand.
The study also found that companies that give back have employees who are 13 times more likely to enjoy coming to work compared to employees who do not view their company to be generous, according to the Fortune magazine report.
McMillan also has found those benefits to ring true. For example, the company does not need to advertise for employees because their own employees talk about the company and their work experiences.
“They talk to friends, they talk to families about how the company supports them,” McMillan said. “We have not had to run an advertisement for employees, because we have a steady stream of people who come and apply because they know we’re a company that they want to work for … being known as an employer of choice, a place where people are proud to work is really important to recruiting good people.”
Lisa Daugherty, president of the Lake Area United Way, said there is a growing trend among employees to work for companies that leave their mark in the community.
“More and more employees, millennials in particular, expect their employer to be engaged in the community and make a difference, not just make a profit,” Daugherty said. “Companies know that, when our individual families thrive, the community thrives.”
She works with about 25 corporations to meet volunteer needs for a variety of projects. Last year, those volunteers gave about 800 hours of time.
Daugherty said large corporations played a key role in the United Way’s annual giving campaign, which last year took in enough money from corporate, employee and private donations to help more than 100,000 families in Lake County.
“We could not accomplish our work and have the impact we do in the community without our corporate partners,” she said.
Supporting a cause
At Chester Inc. in Valparaiso, employees have a 100-percent participation record for the Porter County United Way’s annual giving campaign for the past 25 years.
Chester executives say giving back has been a part of the company’s fabric since its founding in 1947. The company, launched by Orville Redenbacher and Charles Bowman after they purchased George F. Chester & Sons Seed Co., does much of its philanthropic work through the United Way of Porter County because of the many agencies it supports.
And like other corporate executives, Chester recognizes the benefits of being a good corporate citizen.
“It’s important to give back to your community,” said Rich Shields, director of marketing and business development at Chester Inc. “We’re fortunate enough to be able to serve our community and enrich the community and help it grow. Giving back is one of the ways we can do that.”
Chester employees give back in several ways, Shields said. Some participate in the annual Relay for Life to raise money for cancer research, others participate in the United Way’s annual Day of Caring and others act as ambassadors for United Way’s annual campaign.
A recent project included collecting stuffed animals. Employees at Chester collected enough stuffed animals to provide reading buddies for 90 students in three classrooms.
“For me, the benefit is seeing somebody uplifted,” said Tony Hart, a sales engineer at Chester Inc. He also has volunteered at other events, including the Day of Caring, where businesses around Northwest Indiana allow employees to volunteer their time for a community cause. “I guess it’s helping someone and seeing that smile on their face.”
Hart, who also volunteers with the United Way of Porter County on their annual giving campaign, said knowing that two in five people in the community benefit from agencies the United Way supports makes him a firm believer in giving back.
“It kind of makes you thankful for the opportunity to have a job in a town like Valparaiso and a company like Chester,” he said. “It opens your eyes to how much volunteerism is needed to make the community a better place.”
At Strack & Van Til, giving back not only involves employees but also the company’s customers. The grocer runs regular roundup campaigns where customers can round up their grocery store bill with the difference going to a charity, including the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana. Earlier this year, the campaign raised $162,500, or enough for almost 500,000 meals.
Roundup campaigns at Strack & Van Til stores also have benefited other organizations such as the American Heart Association and the Boys & Girls Clubs. The campaigns give customers an easy way to give back, said Dave Wilkinson, chief operating officer for Strack & Van Til.
“We find our customers want to vie and help organizations,” he said. “It’s very easy and fairly inexpensive to donate.”
Though rounding up to donate the change from a grocery store bill might not sound like much on an individual level, it quickly adds up. For the past three years, the grocery store chain has averaged about $600,000 donated annually through roundup campaigns, Wilkinson said.
The company also hosts an annual charity golf outing, raising about $150,000, to give back to organizations throughout the area.
Each store director in the grocery store chain also is given a budget to benefit organizations, including nearby schools or a Boy Scout troop within their community. Employees at each store also are encouraged to find ways to give back such as participating in Habitat for Humanity builds or taking part in fundraising walks.
“Our employees are excited to help make a difference in other people’s lives,” Wilkinson said. “We work and we live here in Northwest Indiana (and) the people who shop our stores are our neighbors or people we see at church on the weekend … we truly are local and (giving back) is just part of being a good neighbor.”