Give Back: Jeffrey Vega speaks on corporate philanthropy on October 19.

Corporate giving is popular enough that large companies have web pages outlining their giving-back policies, staff members dedicated solely to corporate outreach, and detailed information about grant programs within easy reach. And nonprofits are usually pretty adept at sniffing out grants and programs that large corporations offer.

But what about small and medium companies? Are they not supposed to engage in any kind of philanthropy because they can’t afford to dole out six-figure grants? And for that matter, are they just supposed to ignore the building of relationships with younger people through mission-focused programs aligned with their own company values?

Balderdash, says Jeff Vega, president and CEO of the Princeton Area Community Foundation (PACF). Building a solid philanthropy in a small or mid-sized company might not be as easy as just wishing for it, but it can be put into play. You just need some understanding of how to structure your program.

Vega will moderate “Corporate Philanthropy: Developing Your Strategy,” a panel discussion by the Princeton Chamber, on Friday, October 19, at 8 a.m. at Mercer Oaks Country Club. Joining Vega will be Mike Van Wagner, vice president of public affairs at NJM Insurance Group; Raoul Momo, co-owner of Terra Momo Restaurant Group; and Albert Stark, retired shareholder at Stark & Stark. Cost: $50. Visit www.PrincetonChamber.org.

Vega grew up in Irvington to parents who met in South America. His father was an artist and musician from Cuba touring Peru, where he met his future bride. They moved to New Jersey and raised Vega (and his sister, who was born in Mexico on the continuing tour). He earned three bachelor’s degrees, in urban studies, human ecology, and international environmental studies, from Rutgers.

In 1991 Vega was awarded a fellowship to study public policy at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, where he earned his master’s. He began his career in nonprofits at New Brunswick Tomorrow in 1993. He served as president from 2000 to 2014. In 2015 he became president and CEO of PACF.

Along the way he learned something about corporate philanthropy. “Many companies have well-defined corporate giving programs,” he says. “But medium or small businesses, they don’t have any kind of structured program.”

Not even a staff person who knows how to point nonprofits to anything substantive, he says. And in return, while “nonprofits know how to get to, say, Johnson & Johnson and find their grant application,” they don’t know how to find anything out from smaller companies who might actually offer grants that foster anything from the arts to community development to STEM education in schools.

Some things for nonprofits to keep in mind. Running a successful nonprofit is like anything else involving different sets of people, Vega says — it takes building relationships and nurturing them to mutually beneficial ends. This, however, is what sends so many nonprofits, especially smaller ones, scurrying for big corporations.

“Nonprofits are restricted in their time,” Vega says. “It’s easier to look up a grant application than it is to build that relationship.”

But if nonprofits did devote the time to building relationships with various companies, Vega says, they would likely start to notice something more beneficial and less chancy than hoping they get selected from who-knows-how-many other organizations vying for the same chunk of change.

“Companies are moving away from the ‘corporate responsibility’ philosophy to shared values,” Vega says.

In other words, instead of every company positioning itself as a steward of the environment and advocate for the homeless, businesses are now looking to foster philanthropy that already aligns with their corporate missions. For example, a company like Bristol-Myers Squibb, a biotech/science/medicine firm, has programs that foster science education in school districts.

What’s in it for a nonprofit is needed funding to operate a program and follow the organization’s mission, and what’s in it for companies is twofold, Vega says: the opportunity to create a culture of philanthropy so that workers can feel they are doing something positive for the world, and the all-important return on investment. Because of a STEM grant from a biotech, maybe a few middleschoolers will decide they want to work in medicine — they find a career, and the company has a conduit to future workers who already believe in its aims.

The logistics of volunteer work. Philanthropy can be expensive, but it’s not all about grant applications and cutting large checks. For companies, there is also the logistics and expenses associated with volunteering, which Vega says “sounds great, but what does it mean?”

Well, for starters, it means an awful lot of coordinating, even for something that sounds like it should be straightforward. Let’s say, for example, you want to send your employees out to revitalize a playground in a poor urban neighborhood. The issues immediately pile up: transportation for all the employees to and from the playground; bathrooms on site; lunch breaks; supplies to do the work, and so on.

There’s also the fact that if all your employees are out for the day, your business is not going to be open for business. That means letting customers know you’re unavailable that day, making sure work projects are scheduled to factor in the day off, and paying your employees for a day when the business is not going to make a dime.

Helping companies to better understand these kinds of logistics, as well as fostering relationships between companies that want to do a good thing and nonprofits who need money, are what PACF actually does. Vega says PACF’s entire job is putting people from the corporate world in touch with people in the nonprofit world, mainly by marrying up corporate philosophies and strategies with nonprofit mission statements.

That’s less a sales pitch than the bare facts, Vega says, and it’s predicated on the fact that smaller companies, like smaller nonprofits, simply aren’t big enough to be able to assign staff members to handle corporate outreach strategies. Often, he says, there is one employee in charge of monitoring a web page at a company as part of everything else he does for his job.

“They don’t have the luxury of having a marketing or staff person … to think through corporate strategy,” he says.

And in an area where relationships between the right sets of people are especially important, Vega says, it pays to have an intermediary who knows how to match the right organizations with the right companies towards the right missions.

“There’s a lot of willingness to do partnerships,” Vega says. “It’s just a matter of capacity.”

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