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Financial Planning > Charitable Giving

Making Charitable Initiatives a Win-Win for Your Community and Your Business

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Financial representatives (F.R.) have a range of reactions to the idea of integrating philanthropy and volunteerism into their businesses. To some, it feels like two worlds that should remain separate — the collision of private and professional lives. To others, it’s a question of resources. It’s tough enough to operate a practice with limited staff, time and money; adding something un-related to work is counter-intuitive, even if well-intentioned.

At Northwestern Mutual, we view community contribution as good in its own right and good for business. We invite everyone in the industry, from the top down and regardless of affiliation, to do the same.

My goal with this article is to encourage you to see charitable initiatives less as an obligation, and more of an opportunity to achieve a win-win for your community and your business. To make a philanthropic or volunteer effort truly work, I offer these guiding principles:

Make it genuine. Whatever you do, authenticity is critical. The truth of your initiative will be reflected in your words and actions. If you see community contribution as an obligation, it is likely to show. Worse, if you use a charitable cause for completely self-serving purposes, people will see through it. When identifying where you should make your contribution, start by looking inside yourself and finding something that genuinely matters to you. Once you do that, the rest will follow naturally.

Passion pays dividends. Writing a check is great, but it doesn’t compare to rolling up your sleeves and getting involved. I know of an F.R. in Indianapolis who for the past eight years has donated 35 hours a month to working with burn victims. She raises money, works with survivors of fires and recruits other volunteers. She also created the nation’s first camp for children who are burn survivors.

The camp has become a model for rehabilitative services across the nation. What she didn’t expect, but was happy to discover, is that her clients have been impressed by her volunteer work. It has come to stand for something to them: it has instilled a level of trust that she couldn’t have built up as quickly in other ways; and it has set a high water mark for the level of dedication she puts into her work.

Consider applying the skills you already have, rather than having to learn as you go. Some people are put off by getting involved in a cause because it lies so far outside of the lines they’re used to operating within. If that’s the case, consider affiliating with a cause that will allow you to apply the skills you already have.

There’s an F.R. in Nashville who has done just that by dedicating his time to financial literacy education. He has partnered with the local YMCA to conduct financial literacy workshops for children (K-4) at after-school programs scattered around his community. The work has been gratifying for him personally, but has also helped his business because his colleagues ended up following his example.

The impact on the F.R.’s practice has been significant. It built morale, improved team-work, fostered loyalty and infused the office with the sense that there was a greater cause that they were all working toward together.

It’s okay if charity work also helps the bottom line. An F.R. I met once told me he refused to reveal that he was a financial advisor anytime he volunteered for a particular nonprofit organization. His fear was that he would be misunderstood as trying to network for prospects. My response was that he shouldn’t separate his business and volunteer work, but just commit to doing the very best he could at both, then let people decide for themselves if they choose to affiliate with him.

Northwestern Mutual is known as The Quiet Company because we aren’t particularly comfortable pounding our chests about many things. One notable exception to that is in the area of giving back to the communities where we live and work. It’s such a strong part of our culture at every level that we love to talk about it — especially in this our 150th anniversary year, which has also been a milestone year of giving for us.

Our commitment is real, but it is founded in the rock-solid understanding that giving back to others doubles as making an investment in ourselves. It says something to our policyowners about who we are; and it is meaningful to the type of financial representatives we want to work with us. Those benefits are not something we feel we should keep to ourselves. Rather, we want to shout from the rooftops about these benefits.

Citizenship initiatives are not just expected from large companies. When people talk about corporate citizenship, the assumption could be that it is the domain of large companies. But a recent study of corporate citizenship found that the attitude about and commitment to corporate citizenship by leaders of small- and medium-sized businesses are just as strong as they are in the largest corporations. The point is, your competitors are thinking about this even if you’re not. More importantly, your community is expecting it from you.

Strapped for resources? Volunteer! Yes, the research says that small companies almost instinctively understand how important citizenship initiatives are to their own livelihood. But anyone running a local business will be quick to tell you that, when it comes to these programs, they’re strapped for resources and don’t have the staff that the large corporations have. The thing to keep in mind is that corporate citizenship isn’t about only philanthropy and giving money. Consider volunteering your time instead.

Chris Gabrieli, co-founder and chairman of Mass 2020, a program to expand educational and economic opportunities for children and families in Massachusetts, said in a recent interview that volunteerism “is a form of corporate citizenship that is both more accessible to small businesses and self-employed people and more in the spirit of entrepreneurship and direct action. Volunteerism is a model that works better, both practically and spiritually or attitudinally, for small companies.”

Tap into carrier programs and resources. Many companies have foundations that will award donations, grants and sponsorships to deserving nonprofit programs beyond the home office. Other companies have matching gift programs, whereby they will provide a dollar-for-dollar match of a financial representative’s gifts to a cause. Still other companies have created whole programs specifically to help the F.R. establish a community profile.

We’re of course proud of the many programs like these we offer at Northwestern Mutual, and we know that other carriers provide their own programs. Find out how you can leverage them.

Clearly, the case can be made in favor of getting involved in your community, regardless of how you view it in relation to your business. At the end of the day, it’s really a matter of doing the right thing. And don’t forget what Aesop said – “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”


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