It seems as though every time we pick up a newspaper, someone is giving away a fantastic amount of money to a good cause. Smiling faces in full page ads announcing the multi-million dollar donation look up at you and you wonder, “Why should I bother donating at all? These folks have it covered. How can I make a difference when I don’t have hundreds of millions tucked away for just such a gift?”
Let’s face it. These are the exceptions and the occasions make great news. The ultra-ultra-rich have been bestowing their largess to North American communities from the 19th century’s era of the Carnegies, Rockefellers or for more Canadian references, the Masseys, Bronfmans or McConnells. Makes great reading, but how does this relate to you?
Today most of us give to charity, but how many of us actually plan our gifts? Do we think about donating strategically rather than just sending out cheques at year-end to those charities which have the loudest voice, the most compelling direct mail campaign or the friend you just can’t refuse? Or are some of us just overwhelmed by the hardships we read about with increasing environmental disasters and international issues which seem to eclipse the causes here in Canada?
Sometimes we just sit there not sure what is the right thing to do or are afraid of making a mistake. The good news is that there is still time to shake up your methodology for your gifts. Remember, this is your hard-earned money. You and/or your family worked for it through good business sense. Now is the time to apply those same principles to your charitable giving and possibly your volunteer time.
Find a cause that speaks to you. Look to see which charities are working within that sector. If it is a registered Canadian charity with Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), you can have a degree of confidence that it is legitimate. To check out an organization, go to the CRA website, Charities Directorate. Then click on Charities and giving and then choose Charities Listings. All the over 86,000 charities that are registered with CRA are there.
Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call your potential beneficiary to find out more information and ask for the audited financial statements. If you still think it is worthy, call back to either book an appointment to visit with the Executive Director or the person in charge of fundraising. A site visit is an effective way to learn more about the organization.
Here’s one more tip: it is more than acceptable to support the overhead of a charity. Too much has been written about wastefulness by charities and bloated staff salaries. Corporations can learn a lesson or two on how to run an operation with very little resources from local charities. If someone doesn’t help them turn on the lights and pay the rent, how are they supposed to be able to run those vital projects that attract donors?
So while you are there, inquire as to what is the greatest need for that organization and how can you best help. You may just find out that you want to roll up your sleeves and get involved, besides mailing in your annual donation. Now you are making an impact investment that will not only help the charity but also give you a wonderful feeling of self-worth. No matter what size of the gift, you will be directly assisting a cause near to your heart. You might not be in the papers but I can guaranty that you will be smiling.
What would our world look like if no one supported our charitable community and expected governments to do it all? It would likely be a very bleak picture. As we all know too well, governments today do not have the resources to cover the myriad of vital societal needs. That is where business and individuals can join together to ensure that our communities are vibrant and safe.
Do communities really need our help? Without question.
Consider the plight of Canadian children as one example. According to the Vital Signs Report from the Community Foundations of Canada, child poverty continues to plague our cities and towns. We worry about gang violence, but we need to address the root cause with social programs, not more policing. Children must have the opportunity to grow and learn — free from harm and with proper nutrition and care. It is as simple as that.
We need to address other issues such as the environment (with predictions of people dying from pollution), homelessness, a growing senior population with its particular requirements, and educating our youth for the future of our country's economy to name but a few. It is up to us to pitch in and help. Governments can't do it all.
Over the past 15 years of advising corporations, I have observed a positive trend where business is becoming more strategic in supporting community organizations through a targeted focus on philanthropy. That is a good thing.
It is a win-win situation when businesses achieve concrete goals such as better brand recognition and reputation or employee retention by giving in meaningful ways, such as encouraging staff involvement with charitable partners on company time. Consumers tend to favour businesses with a clear philanthropic focus. As more and more businesses realize that 'doing good is good for business,' we will see the results in our own communities.
Sue Bochner has worked as a consultant to over 50 corporations in the last 15 years, specializing in strategic philanthropy and Community Investment Programs. As the Founder, President and CEO of the Children's Aid Society Foundation, she has had previous experience working in the charitable sector for more than 20 years.
Nobody doubts the conventional wisdom that a recession will cut into the size of the available sponsorship pie. But an uncertain economic outlook still offers opportunities for both sponsors, and properties looking for funds.
"Right now we are obviously in very challenging economic times," says Stephen Pruitt, Gottlieb Chair of Finance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "Until recently the sports community have been insulated from those changes. Those days are now over. Watching the troubles with NASCAR sponsorship indicates that the gravy days are over. An Indy car race in Detroit was recently cancelled for lack of funding. We're on a new playing field and we have to determine what the new standard operating procedures will be. Sponsorship dollars will still be in the market, but they'll be looking for the best possible deals. The few sponsor players stepping up to the plate will be expecting a lot."
Sponsors such as Hyundai are muscling in on former Big Three territory, with the carmaker replacing General Motors as the sponsor for this year's Academy Awards, for example. The apparent reason? Favourable currency exchange rates have put the Asian car manufacturer in an enviable position — at least in the short term.
"We're going to see fewer players and very different players," says Pruitt. "The big boys are stepping aside, and some new players will enter the stage in way they've never done before. Obviously the public opinion of Hyundai isn't as high as the board at Hyundai would like, and with the major automotive players stepping aside, they have a chance to re-create and rehabilitate their image."
Pruitt says that part of the difficulty in planning long-term sponsorship strategies under the current economic malaise is that there isn't really a clear prognosis on how long it will last. Sponsors aren't sure whether they're better off jumping on an opportunity or holding off until times are better.
Rather than waiting for the economy to recover, sponsors should look for deals, right now, says Alan Middleton, Executive Director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre and Assistant Professor of Marketing, at the Schulich School of Business, York University. "Look for long-term opportunities at lower rates," he says. "Look for properties that are core, rather than peripheral to brand positioning. Find dominant sponsorships that are appropriate to current social trends and those that can do double-duty and can be easily be leveraged across other marketing communications activities. Go for your best deal, because everything — even really popular sports and high-level celebrities — is negotiable right now."
Sue Bochner of Sue Bochner + Associates, a consultancy specializing in strategic philanthropy, agrees that sponsors should negotiate tough deals and ask for more benefits than ever before. "Ask them what extras they're prepared to give you, even as you're about to sign on the dotted line," she says. "This is not a time to be tentative, either as a sponsor or a property. If you're looking for money, read the financial papers to see who's doing well. If you're a property that has a slightly weak position in the market place, team up with another similar property to give a sponsor more reason to notice you and reap a double reward."
And while some high profile events may be feeling a sponsorship pinch, many charities looking for sponsors are still in reasonable shape, she says. "I haven't heard a lot of charities suffering at this point, especially those with sophisticated fundraising operations. Not everyone is doing badly."
Bochner says that a few charities she's contacted have turned down available sponsorship commitments in the $200,000 to $400,000 range because they already have a full dance card. "They're basically saying, 'we can't be bothered to make the effort to write up the RFP,'" she says.
Bochner also notes that sponsors don't necessarily need to spend a lot of money to make an impact. "The offer of money is just one aspect of a sponsorship," she says. "Consider volunteerism or gifts in kind. At one point Merril Lynch was offering free long distance calls for seniors at some of their trading desks at Christmas time at a cost of next-to-nothing, but it received great coverage."
The current year will also probably see some marginal properties on the verge of collapse. Saving such properties as a "white knight" sponsor swooping in at the last minute might provide some benefit, but also carries risks.
"When RBC rescued the Canadian Open, there was definitely an uptick for the bank in the community already interested in golf through positive attitude and recognition," says Middleton. "There was also a lot of angst about who would step up to replace tobacco sponsors for the DuMaurier Jazz Festival, and there was a lot of recognition for sponsors knowing that the event would go away without that support. However, I would suggest that nobody rush in to such a partnership unless it makes strategic sense and unless the benefits of the activity can be communicated to a broad audience, instead of a smaller community with interest already invested in that property."
A last-minute offer by IBM to save Ottawa's Royal Swan program in late 2008 is a case-in-point. The sponsorship received considerable local press, but not much coverage beyond the target market.
Pruitt says that this pattern is typical of such white knight sponsorship efforts, and worthwhile only if the intention was to elicit local response. "When you save a golf or tennis tournament, you'll get a lot of local recognition in the community where the event will occur," he says. "Whether there's any economic benefit to the sponsor is another matter. As a white knight you don't have the luxury of planning your strategy months before the actual event. It doesn't give you time to build brand equity."
Pruitt also warns potential white knights that picking up a deal at the last minute might actually devalue the property itself, particularly if it has long been identified with a particular sponsor. "If you've taken over an event formerly known as the Tostitos Bowl and now rechristen it the Met Life Fiesta Bowl, the confusion you generate among the fans can really reduce the benefits for the new sponsor," he says. "A sponsorship that changes from year to year will probably continue to devalue — confusion is never a good thing. Even if you get an extremely attractive deal in tough economic times, you still need to plan your sponsorships for the long term."
When TSR spoke with Sally Turney, Vice President of Corporate Affairs with Aviva Canada Inc., the world was just learning of actress Natasha Richardson's death from a seemingly minor and preventable head injury. It's that type of injury, and that scale of loss, that Aviva and ThinkFirst Canada are trying to prevent through Aviva Brain Day, a young but growing in-school program. It's a program that takes a unique approach to injury prevention education. By helping kids understand what the brain does and how it works, the program makes them more receptive to safety messaging, a result that ThinkFirst can back up with academic research. That, and its ability both to teach and to engage, have made it a welcome addition to the classroom, and a natural and powerful vehicle for property and casualty insurer Aviva Canada.
The program, delivered in-claass during March, targets children in grade 5. It's an age when children are curious and able to grasp basic neuroscience concepts, explains Midori Miyamoto, ThinkFirst's Manager of Communications. They're also going through the most dangerous moment in their lives, statistically the age when they're most likely to injure themselves.
Aviva entered into a partnership with ThinkFirst three years ago, following a rigorous search for a single cause partner to help galvanize employees and build the brand. It is current in the final year of its contract, and plans are in place for renewal.
The Brain Day program was developed by ThinkFirst and the University of Toronto. It is delivered in-class by university students and teachers recruited by the 20 ThinkFirst chapters across the country. Recruited students will all have a relevant background — teaching, nursing, medicine, neuroscience — and will be trained in the delivery of a hands-on half-day program.
"Classrooms become laboratories and kids get to conduct science experiments," explains Miyamoto. Students conduct experiments using each of the five senses, learning how their senses are linked to brain function. They experience how smell happens, how sight happens. They learn how different areas of the brain are tied together and come to understand the impact of specific types of brain injury. It is fun, but also labour intensive and costly, running between $210 and $240 per classroom.
When Aviva took over the title sponsorship of Brain Day last year, one of its objectives was to raise the program's profile, something it is accomplishing in large measure through the pro bono efforts of its PR agency Fleishman-Hillard. In just one year, Aviva has helped double the number of students who will receive the program. Ten thousand students will participate in Aviva Brain Day this year, and that means that 10,000 families will hear about it from their kids when they bring their Aviva Brain Day material home from school and become safety advocates within the family. For a property and casualty insurer like Aviva, the country's second-largest, that is a powerful endorsement.
"This is a sponsorship," Turney stresses. "Over 50% of Canadians hold a negative impression of home and auto insurance companies." Aviva Brain Day is one element of an effort to shift that perception. Other elements include a lighthearted television commercial and the changeinsurance.ca website.
Aviva tracks the impact of the efforts through ongoing brand awareness research. Specific to Aviva Brain Day, the company will be watching employee volunteerism, which it will be further encouraging later this year by offering 15 paid hours of volunteer activity per year.
Another indicator of success is the program's growing acceptance and popularity. Getting into schools has not been much of a challenge, says Miyamoto. ThinkFirst offers scholarly research that backs up its claim that students who receive the program learn valuable lessons about brain function and accident prevention. Teachers who receive the program are very likely to request it again the following year.
But the benefit, says Turney, is "the possibility. The possibility that we could be saving lives. I know it sounds a bit apple pie-ish, but I sincerely mean it. Let's get those kids out there with helmets on. Let's stop these accidents that just don't need to happen like the tragic one that happened this week."