When an Ohio Walmart held a food drive benefiting its own employees this November, the company provoked discussion about whether it should raise wages for its workers so they could afford to eat instead of collecting charity on their behalf. That was hardly the only example of a corporate philanthropy campaign backfiring.
The truth is that philanthropy often goes awry, but normally it happens on a smaller scale. Nita Kirby, director of client strategies at JK Group, has seen it most often in the form of insincere charitable efforts — the perfunctory volunteer day or donation that is more about generating publicity than it is about actually trying to help.
Since the holidays are prime time for corporate philanthropy campaigns, both the earnest and the cynical, Kirby has lots of advice for making sure companies make the most of their giving campaigns. “People think they need to do it because their peer in the marketplace is doing it,” she says. “Stronger programs are embedded in the company’s culture — it’s who they are.”
It’s fair to say that charitable giving is part of who Kirby is, as well as the company she works for. JK Group, located at 104 Morgan Lane in Plainsboro, is a company that helps other companies organize and manage charitable giving and volunteering efforts.
The JK Group was founded in 1994 by Roy Kaplan and Glenn Johnson. Kaplan had worked for Boeing and Bell Labs before starting at ARAP, a small, Washington Road-based, database management company, from which he eventually branched off with coworker Johnson to form the JK Group.
The firm deals with the paperwork involved with charitable donations. Often companies will have someone running a charity drive in addition to their normal responsibilities, but that person is not an expert in nonprofits and may view the task as a secondary function or an extra burden.
JK Group has built a business on outsourcing all that work. In 2010 the JK Group made its move from 666 Plainsboro Road to the 42,700-square-foot building it now owns at 104 Morgan Lane. With 110 employees the company now occupies 32,000 feet.
JK was acquired by the Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Holdings in 2010. Today the firm has close to 200 employees, and manages more than $1 billion in donations for companies around the world. The CEO is Robert Farina, who came on board in 2012.
As for Kirby, volunteering is in her blood. The daughter of an Air Force colonel, Kirby moved all around the country growing up. Her mother had roots in Berkeley, California, where she was an executive for United Way. Kirby remembers helping her mom, an avid shopper, organize a campaign with the Nordstrom’s department store. Her grandparents too, believed in service. Her grandmother sewed clothes for needy people, and her grandfather volunteered for the local church and organized food drives.
It’s little surprise, then, that Kirby has continued that tradition. When Kirby’s daughter was two, about 20 years ago, she was living in Atlanta. Kirby couldn’t find a school she wanted to send her to. So she helped found one: the Grant Park Learning Center, which still exists today. Over the course of her career, Kirby has worked for both nonprofits and corporations. In 1996 she managed security training for the Olympic Games. In 2000 she made the definitive switch to the corporate world, bringing her insights into nonprofits to JK Group.
She made the move at a time when the world of philanthropy was changing rapidly. “Corporate philanthropy in the late ’90s and early 2000s was very different,” she says. “It was paper-based and relationship-driven. It was a conversation more than actually a process. But it became more process and structure-oriented as the Internet boom occurred.”
Companies began using sophisticated tools and Internet platforms to manage their charitable giving, rather than the relationship-based deals of the past, she says. Raising money became a matter of convincing people to make online donations.
However, Kirby believes the pendulum may be swinging back the other way, as companies look to have the best of both worlds in their charitable efforts, creating drives that are technically advanced, but that connect to the communities they are trying to help.
Kirby has many tips for leading a successful charity drive.
Know your audience. Much of JK Group’s business is international, and that arena is Kirby’s specialty. She always makes sure clients understand the local environment of their campaigns before moving forward. Not doing so could make the company seem crass or out-of-touch. “For example, asking an employee to donate a minimum of $25, in a developing country where wages are lower, is just wrong.”
Be thoughtful. Don’t pay attention to buzzwords. Kirby says companies like Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Google, and Texaco all have philanthropy embedded in their corporate cultures, and this leads to sincere and effective charity drives.
It’s not just about money. Kirby says many employees are looking for ways to use their professional skills, rather than just giving money or volunteering doing something they aren’t good at. The talents make them valuable employees could also make them useful to charities. Kirby says some forward thinking companies are giving paid time off just to do charity work.
Let the employees lead. Rather than telling employees what to do, Kirby says some companies are letting employees direct corporate giving. For example, a company might have an employee-directed board distribute charitable contributions. This makes workers feel more engaged and in control, and therefore more likely to help. Some companies, like Starbucks, even involve customers in their charity drives.
Make it a good fit. Kirby says companies should support organizations that have similar characteristics and values. This can be the foundation of a good relationship.
Find a good partner. Managing philanthropy is important, Kirby says, and whether it is JK Group, another company, a nonprofit group, or an individual, it helps to have someone at the helm.
Know your employees. Understanding what they are looking for and what they want to do will get them engaged.
Follow up. “The first pass should not be the last pass,” Kirby says. Continually re-think structures and make them better.
Kirby practices what she preaches. JK Group has its own very active giving campaign, with volunteerism, food drives, blood drives, fundraising, clothing drives, and a donation matching program. “One year we dressed our CEO up as a pig as part of a drive,” Kirby says. “It was a classic.”
That spirit of fun pervades JK Group’s own charity drives, and Kirby wants to spread it to the firm’s clients as well.
“It’s really all about one word: kindness,” she says. “It is the core of the process. You just chose to act, you make a conscious decision to become involved, and that’s the heart of it.”