Jennifer Brunelle

Sharing is caring. It’s an age-old axiom and one that Princeton based NRG-Energy corporate philanthropist Jennifer Brunelle is quick to repeat when people ask her why they should support and become activists in their communities. “Serving in the community can mean different things for different people and different companies,” she says. “Employee engagement at the local level allows us to participate as engaged members of the communities where we live and work.”

Brunelle will be a speaker and panelist at the Princeton Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, October 10, at Cobblestone Creek Country Club, 2170 Lawrence Road, Lawrenceville. The event will spotlight an initiative by the Central NJ Nonprofit Council to promote the advantages of serving on a nonprofit board of directors. The cost is $40. For more information, visit www.princeton-mercerchamber.org or call 609-924-1776. Other panelists include: Michael VanWagner, vice president of public affairs for NJM; Vijay Aiuwalia, a financial advisor at Edward Jones; and Allison Howe, executive director at VolunteerConnect, who will moderate the discussion.

According to data released earlier this year by the New Jersey Center for Non-Profits , there are more than 34,000 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations across the state. Additionally, data from the IRS show that New Jersey nonprofits collectively spend more than $38 billion annually — the bulk of it on goods and services throughout the state.

The board of directors is the governing body of a nonprofit, and individuals who sit on the board are ultimately responsible for the oversight and direction of it. Add to the mix that many of the nonprofits are small, start-up organizations, and the need for a cohesive yet diverse board of directors is pervasive. “Corporations are recognizing the need and importance for supporting the people and causes in their own backyard,” Brunelle says.

Brunelle is a native of New Jersey and has sat at the helm of the NRG corporate giving program since 2012. Prior to joining the company in 2009 she worked as a finance and marketing manager. She holds an undergraduate degree from Rutgers University. She says she is committed to forming business alliances with organizations — large and small — that align with the strategic and long term goals of NRG. The company has partnered for several years with VolunteerConnect — a Princeton-based organization that, among other things, offers nonprofit board training to business executives.

Joining the board. As with all business related activities, there are both benefits and risks of joining the board of directors at a nonprofit organization. The first question a potential board member should ask is: why are they being asked to join the board of directors? The most common reasons center on one’s skills, contacts, and diverse opinions and ideas. The board of directors has an obligation to the public for ensuring that the nonprofit stays on a specified mission and operates effectively. This starts with identifying and appointing an eclectic mix of potential members. For example, family members and business associates cannot make up the majority of a board of directors.

“One of the benefits we offer our employees is the opportunity to develop their professional volunteerism skills leveraged by service on nonprofit boards and more effectively donating their unique skill sets,” Brunelle says.

She highlights a recent example that exemplifies that value of collaboration between the company and grassroots community organizations — the sort of connection that can lead to board appointments. “Earlier this year graduates from Philabundance’s culinary program catered one of our company events,” she says. “The event provided NRG employees with a unique opportunity to learn more about [Philabundance’s] job training and placement programming,” she says. “Participation in the event sparked employee interest in future volunteerism with the organization.” Philabundance is the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief food bank. The Philadelphia-based nonprofit agency also operates a culinary job training program in North Philadelphia.

Politics versus charitable giving: An occasional criticism leveled against some major corporations is that philanthropic initiatives are often aimed at specific political gains for the company rather than deep rooted social issues and causes. For example, last year a group of economists analyzed corporate donations to nonprofit agencies and various charities across the country between 1998 to 2015. The analysis found corporate philanthropic donations often land in the same districts as an organization’s preferred political incumbent. The report asserts corporate foundations give more money to nonprofit organizations and charities in districts where companies favor a particular political agenda or candidate.

Brunelle dismissed the criticism and said NRG focuses on serving all communities. “As an organization with locations all over the country — rural, urban and everything in between — we are focused on serving the communities where we operate,” she says. “Much of the giving is needs-based, whether it is providing disaster relief, addressing food security or homelessness. Many of the organizations we support locally do great work to help tackle these issues.”

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