Bottom up giving: The company that lets employees choose which local charities to support

We can all be corporate Kris Kringles with EDG.
We can all be corporate Kris Kringles with EDG.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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This piece has been corrected.

In Nov. 2014, Nancy Boutet looked up from her desk at the J.V. Fletcher Library in Westford, Massachusetts, where she is the youth services director, and saw two regular patrons—Clara, 6, and Caden, 4—holding an envelope. Boutet knew the children from their regular Tuesday visits, when they stopped in at the library with their mother; she knew the sibling duo to be “big readers” and always eager to chat.

“I thought they were coming in with a Christmas card,” Boutet recalls, but when Clara handed her the envelope, she said, “My daddy said we can make a donation.” Inside was a check for $1,000.

Boutet learned that the donation was part of a unique employee-directed giving (EDG) program at Cummings Properties, a Woburn-based commercial real estate company where Clara and Caden’s father, Eric Anderson, is the executive vice president. When Anderson had the chance to sit down with his family over lunch in their sunroom and ask how they should handle the donation, Clara didn’t hesitate: “Let’s give it to Nancy at the library.”

Touched, Boutet says of her immediate reaction, “I cried. It’s just the sweetest thing—such amazing generosity.”

Started as a pilot in 2012, the EDG program allows each of Cummings Properties 370 employees to direct a donation of $1,000 to an area non-profit of their choosing. The only requirements are that the recipient organization has 501c3 status, performs a direct service, and is local—not a regional chapter of a national non-profit. In the EDG program and the company overall, there’s a strong focus on supporting grassroots organizations in the greater Boston area—where the company operates and employees reside. To date, the EDG program has injected $1,068,000 to area non-profits.

Increasingly, corporations are recognizing the value in engaging employees in charitable activities—and making it possible for the individual employees to give based on their personal passions. Giving in Numbers, a report released by the CECP, a coalition of CEOs focused on societal engagement, in association with the Conference Board, found that, in 2014, 88% of companies offer at least one matching gift program for employees.

Within those programs, 68% of companies let the employee choose the charity. Also encouraging employee participation, Goldman Sachs has a program that allows senior level executives to recommend grants to not-for-profits around the world. Other corporations, like Alcoa, are opting to use a gift card format (distributed by Global Giving and DonorsChoose) to facilitate employee donations to their cause of choice. In 2014, HP announced a partnership with Kiva, in which HP employees can make $25 micro-loans to a small business owner, in the name of alleviating poverty. More and more, companies are finding creative ways to encourage the civic participation of their employees.

But the example of the Cummings EDG program, with its comparatively substantive contributions, offers a distinctly personal touch. In the case of the Andersons, they participate in the library’s activities and benefit from the expansion of resources, such as new puppets, and programming, too. (Clara is a member of the second grade book club.) While the company also has a generous matching gift policy—up to $2,000 per employee—not everyone has the budgetary bandwidth to participate. The funds for EDG come directly from the company and require no financial commitment on the part of the employee. Anderson says, “The company does so much to make it easy for us. This program allows me to give locally to an organization that is very important to my family, and to give in a way that may not have otherwise been practical.”

At Cummings, the giving ethos comes from the top down. In 1986, Bill Cummings, the company’s founder, along with his wife Joyce, established the Cummings Foundation, an operational foundation that runs New Horizons, two not-for-profit retirement communities in Marlborough and Woburn. (Full disclosure: my maternal grandmother spent ten years living at the Marlborough location, which is how I first learned about the charitable acts of “Mr. Cummings,” about whom she raved.) The Cummings donated the majority of their commercial real estate to the foundation, and today, nearly all of the buildings managed by the company are operated for the benefit of the foundation. On the foundation’s website, the Cummings say, “After about 15 successful years in commercial real estate, we came to recognize and believe that no one can truly ‘own’ anything. With that thought in mind, it was easy to give much more.”

Their giving expanded in 1996, to include scholarships to local high school students; to date, more than $2 million in educational aid has been distributed. In 2011, the foundation became a grant-making organization, with the launch of its “$100K for 100” program, which distributes at total of $10 million annually to 100 greater Boston non-profits. That same year, the Cummings became the first Massachusetts family to join the Giving Pledge, a cohort of billionaires who have committed to giving away at least half their wealth to charitable causes, either during their lifetime or in their will. In addition to strictly local giving, the foundation has expanded their work internationally, too, spearheading the establishment of the Institute for World Justice (IWJ), which gave $15 million to Partners in Health, to establish the University of Global Health Equity in Butaro, Rwanda. In a Boston Globe article, Cummings said, “There’s a point at which it doesn’t make any difference to earn more money…It’s very satisfying to do good things with what you have.”

Beyond the dollars distributed, it’s that same sense of satisfaction that the company’s employees have experienced—and share with their families, too. One employee, who asked to remain anonymous, donated her EDG funds to a local social service agency, after her teenage daughter was heartbroken to learn that her best friend’s family was relying on a soup kitchen to eat. After consulting his wife and three children, Mike Lamothe, the senior graphic designer, decided to give toward medical care at a local animal shelter, because his family members are all animal lovers. (Noting their pet inventory—a dog, a rabbit, goldfish, and hermit crabs—he jokes, “We have a small farm at home.”) Erica Wright, the operations manager, chose Christopher’s Haven, a temporary residence located across from Massachusetts General Hospital, where families with children battling cancer can stay during treatment. Like many of the employees at Cummings, Wright opted to take her involvement to the next level, bringing home-cooked dinners to the families, and also bringing her five-year-old son. She says, “This is something that I can give to him, an experience of generosity.”

While studies have linked employee philanthropic engagement to increased worker productivity, there’s another incentive for companies to facilitate generosity. Dennis Clarke, the president and CEO, says of the EDG program, “If you’re one of almost 400 people contributing to the company’s overall success, that’s something everyone can feel good about, but a surplus is also abstract. With the employee-directed giving, there’s a broader purpose to show up at work, with a different kind of tangible result—it’s an extra reason feel good about what they’re doing here.”

A surprising outcome of the program, Clarke says, is how much attention the mini-grants have garnered in the community. The $100K for 100 grants are far larger in scope, but the EDG program has sparked exciting conversation, with lots of positive attention on the company. Wright echoes this sentiment: “With family and friends, and even through networking, people want to know about this program—discussions are more focused on this than the real estate aspect of my job.” Anderson adds, “It’s been a great way to network and learn more about what’s happening in our towns.”

Giving back, including in ways that is institutionally-sanctioned, tends to create a sense of purpose—that there’s something more expansive, more imperative than one’s daily life and subjective concerns. What began as two philanthropists’ desire to share their wealth has trickled down to affect organizations, individuals in need, company employees, and their children. The ripple effect of the Cummings Foundation even reached my grandmother. As a new resident of one of the foundation’s not-for-profit retirement communities and someone who had earmarked a portion of her will to charity, she remarked, “I love this place. They have the freshest tomatoes, and they give scholarships to the high school kids.” The day before she died, she spoke of Mr. Cummings and his good deeds with pride—grateful for her distant connection to such free-flowing generosity.

It’s heartening to think about the myriad ways that a single gift of $1,000—creating a sense of ownership over the generous act—might continue to impact and inspire the children of Cummings employees. Anderson says that Clara and Caden were “ecstatic” when they came back from dropping the check to Boutet. “It was a big deal,” he recalls. “They got to give on a level far beyond what they were accustomed to. They also got to feel and experience the joy and appreciation of others.”

And that experience, one might say, is priceless.

For more on how to create a similar program, please visit this link.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that the funds for the Cummings EDG program came from the company’s foundation. The funds, in fact, come directly from the company.