by Gail Letts
Fall is a time when many companies launch internal campaigns to support a nonprofit or charitable organization in the community. With summer vacations over and kids back in school, folks are generally less distracted and more likely to get engaged with a cause.
Just because diversions are fewer, however, does not guarantee that people will get involved. There are a lot of great organizations competing for donations, and it is up to those leading a giving campaign to help others recognize the value in their particular cause.
The current economic downturn has added another layer of complexity to the task of asking employees to give. Families are struggling with myriad financial challenges, from children in college to aging parents they are helping support.
During an economic downturn and slow recovery, however, the needs within the community only increase. If at all possible, it is not the time to cut back on giving, although it may require more creativity from those who lead the charge. Below are three best practices to consider as you direct your giving campaign.
Make giving fun
Incorporate team building so that your colleagues get to know others in the company who are getting involved. Let people know they are part of a larger effort and that anything they give will make a difference.
An example from my own experience occurred in 2011 when we planned a flash mob to kick off our annual United Way campaign in Central Virginia. (A flash mob is a seemingly impromptu performance in a public area.) Select teammates — as we call each other at SunTrust — from across the bank secretly practiced a dance weeks before the official kickoff.
On performance day, we spread the word that something interesting was going to happen in front of our building. As people began to gather, teammates throughout the crowd took off their outer shirts or coats to display their United Way t-shirts and performed the dance they practiced. At a time when many people were concentrating on the challenges of giving, the dance helped reinvigorate our internal efforts by focusing on what we could do together as a bank.
Give employees time off to volunteer
Ultimately, your teammates should begin to think of your company’s efforts to help the community as more than just a campaign. It needs to be part of the fabric of your organization and your teammates’ lives. To accomplish this, you and your teammates need first-hand experience volunteering so you can see how donations are making a difference. The best way we have found to do this at SunTrust is by providing paid time off for employees to volunteer and identifying opportunities where they can get involved. As a result, volunteering has become a normal part of working at SunTrust and a source of pride for teammates.
Empower employees to take ownership
Giving back can also be a bottom-up process. If an employee offers creative ways to support an existing campaign, encourage and reward their initiative. Enthusiasm rising up to the executive suite is always the best kind. Our support in Central Virginia for Making Strides against Breast Cancer is a good example. Employees form teams and then compete against others to see who can raise the most money. This decentralized structure encourages people to be creative in how they reach a goal.
An added benefit of this bottom-up structure is that it demonstrates how being proactive is encouraged and rewarded. This culture has the potential to spill over into other aspects of the company besides community involvement.
The past few years have not been an easy time to donate money, yet I remain convinced that most people will give generously when confronted with real needs. I have experienced that firsthand at SunTrust where for 10 consecutive years — through good economic times and difficult downturns — my teammates in Central Virginia have given more than $1 million to the United Way. That should inspire all executives leading giving campaigns to believe the best about their colleagues and set ambitious goals to help their community.
Gail Letts is SunTrust Bank’s Central Virginia president and CEO. She is also currently chair of the board of directors for United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg, a position she will hold until 2014.
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