Philanthropy: Who, when, and how much?

Some simple rules of thumb oncorporate giving

Jamie Miller, co-owner of Manna Music, said organizing how he spends his limited philanthropic dollars is no easy task. � I try to put money into organizations with a proven track record and organizations that I believe in,� Miller said.

   With 196 public charities in Whatcom County, business owners can become overwhelmed with all the different philanthropic possibilities. While some choose to give monetarily, others opt for donating products or time. John Norton, president of Snelson Companies Inc., a local pipeline-construction company, contributes all three.
   “Our common philosophy is contributing to family and youth,” Norton said. “The formal charity that we donate to is the Boys and Girls Club. We picked that one because it supports local youth and gives them options.”
   Norton said that besides the Boys and Girls Club, Snels0n tries to help individuals with personal needs rather then just writing checks for different charities.
   “I find it easier to give at a personal level than at a formal level,” he said. “I give more often when I feel I have an impact.”
   Snelson donates to activities such as mission trips, sports expenses or families with specific issues and other individualized needs. They also support fundraisers given by longtime customers or the United Way. Employees of Snelson contribute by making donations for a specific cause, with the company matching the total donations.
   “We try to donate to things that promote constructive, positive life choices,” Norton said.
   John Beebe, president of Bellingham Automotive, has a different approach to charities.
   “We really like giving to auctions,” he said. “We participate in 10 to 12 auctions a year.”
   Some of the auctions Bellingham Automotive supports are Younglife, Tennant Lake and different sporting organizations.


   “We have switched from just writing checks to participating in auctions,” he said. “I like to do things where I get to meet new customers and new friends.”
   Because of Hurricane Katrina, Bellingham Automotive has teamed up with eight other auto shops to donate 10 oil changes each, with all the proceeds going toward the Red Cross. Jasper Engines has promised to match the oil-change proceeds, about $2,250, and donate that money to the relief effort as well.
   “Disaster Relief is the biggest thing we are doing right now,” Beebe said. “The Automotive Service Association (ASA) of Whatcom County has agreed to fix up and prepare 10 vehicles for 10 different families that have been victims of the hurricane.”
Bellingham Automotive is also selling locally made photo greeting cards with all proceeds going to the Red Cross.
   “Everything we do usually goes toward something that helps people, especially when people are hungry and need shelter.” Beebe said.
   Jamie Miller, co-owner of Manna Music and a longtime donor to the Lighthouse Mission, agrees with that philosophy.
   “The Mission is a great charity. I can’t think of any other place in Bellingham that is more deserving of charitable dollars,” Miller said.
   Manna Music also donates to Special Olympics, Asian Access and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. For individual events, Miller donates musical products to different auctions, including Blue Skies for Children and the Umbrella Fest.
   “I try to put money into organizations with a proven track record and organizations that I believe in,” Miller said. “I always like local charities because the money stays in the community.”
   According to Peter Theisen, president of the United Way of Whatcom County, has seen 75 percent more public charities over the last five years totaling 196. The growth in contributions however, has only increased by 29 percent to $65 million.    Because of this uneven balance of growth and contribution, businesses are faced with telephone calls, mail solicitations and e-mails by different national and local charities asking for company donations. For most business owners, this means having to decline many of these requests.
   “Saying no is tough. Especially to charities with a good cause,” Beebe said. There are always more people asking than we can help.”
   Because Bellingham Automotive primarily donates to auctions, it has made declining charities’ requests for money easier, according to Beebe.
   “We tell them we are doing something different. That we are involved with auctions.”
Both Norton and Miller ask that all phone solicitations send something by mail.
   “We can get barraged with calls,” Norton said. “I request things in writing so I can filter them out. We evaluate those requests with our ability to contribute and our philosophy.”
   Jamie Miller also tells solicitors that he has already contributed the money budgeted for charity into specific organizations.
   Because of the amount of donation requests, all three business owners are wary of illegitimate solicitations.
   “We don’t write blank checks to people,” Norton said. “We try to verify a situation or need before we support something.”
   Both Snelson and Bellingham Automotive try to deal with avoiding illegitimate organizations by working with smaller charities through long-time customers whom they trust. Manna Music chooses to support larger charities with proven records and accountability. All three companies, however, contribute to charities they believe to be important to the community.
   “I think most companies should be involved in their community,” Norton said. “We use resources in the community, why not give back and make it a better place if you can?”
   The Lighthouse Mission Executive Director, Ron Buchinski, said he relies on companies that believe in giving back to the community. As a privately funded charity with no government or United Way support, the Lighthouse Mission depends on local businesses and individuals for all of its donations.
   “Without businesses, programs like ours wouldn’t exist,” said Buchinski. “There couldn’t be any charities without business support,” he said.
   About 25 percent of all Lighthouse Mission donations are corporate, but many local businesses donate more than just money.
   “Businesses have renovated the building and given us furniture. Restaurants have provided meals; catering companies have given us their left-overs. I’m very grateful,” said Buchinski.
   The Lighhouse Mission also surrounds itself with businesspeople who give its employees legal and financial advice.
   The United Way of Whatcom County also depends heavily on businesses for contributions, according to President Peter Theisen. Reductions in government and large corporate funding have caused the United Way to turn to local businesses for added support.
   “It provides opportunities for businesses to give back to the community and is a symbol of business good will,” Theisen said. “It also helps portray a positive image.”
The United Way works with 400 local businesses in the community to raise money for 28 funded agencies and 50 programs.
   “Last year, 45,000 people in this community were helped by United Way,” Theisen said.
   Because so many charities depend on corporate donations, it is important for businesses to find a style of contribution that fits the company budget, standards and values.
   “Pick something that is important, something you’re passionate about. It will make you more willing and consistent in giving,” Norton said.


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