A successful insurance brokerage veteran, Bruce Basso is the Chairman Emeritus of the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation, a philanthropic effort by the insurance industry that has coordinated some 120,000 man hours in volunteer work to community nonprofit organizations. In 2009, the IICF awarded $664,000 in grants to community nonprofits as well. We spoke with Basso about what the IICF is working on now, and why it’s important to get the word out on all the good the insurance industry does.

How did the IICF get started? There was a small group of executives in early 90s that would throw a black tie dinner in San Francisco once a year, raise $50,000 or $60,000, more than half of it would go to pay for the dinner, and would disband and do it again the next year. The rotation of the annual chairman finally came to me and I thought it was about time that we expanded this to something much broader than just a dinner, and that we try and put together at least locally, and within California, something that helps promote the image of the industry and all of good things done by all of the men and women in it today.

What drew you to this group? First of all, it’s the right thing to do because it’s something the industry needs. But more importantly, I have been in this industry since 1970, and I have had more fun, met more great people, and been more successful than any one man should have in his lifetime. Charity work is nothing more than: you’ve got to give back.

The group has grown a lot in recent years, hasn’t it? In the early 2000s, I discussed with AIG in New York how they could grasp an existing charity operating in California and bring it into New York city. With grand New York style, Martin Sullivan, who was then the CEO, pulled together some CEO breakfasts. AIG was a powerhouse behind this, and as you would expect, the first dinner opened in New York with 1,500 people and it raised $1.3 million the first night. They had Michael Bloomberg, Colin Powell, and this just took off. The group in New York has done a spectacular job and has continued the growth in New York that more than rivals California. We now have a national charity between New York and San Francisco that averages over $2 million a year.

But you are looking to expand to other cities too, right? We are working with Willis and Joe Plumeri to open our third division in Chicago. There is a lot of pent-up demand there; we have calls from CNA, Aon, Allstate and many others who appreciate and understand our vision. Hopefully, that will happen in the first part of 2011. Following that, we will move into Dallas, possibly also to Atlanta, to open a southern part of the U.S. and create a truly national charity.

What are the obstacles to doing all of this? One of the first things that we have to do is get all of the various chapters put together and create the local support of agents, brokers, regional carriers and vendors. We need to create a reputation and a history with all of the local recipients. It is important that that all know that each division of the IICF that collects funds in their area gives back to their local area. That is something we’re very supportive of. We feel it is definitely the right thing to do.

What about coordinating with other industry groups? In the early years of the charity, every time I would approach a carrier, I would often be roadblocked by an existing foundation that a particular company may have established. It wasn’t malicious, but it was an obstacle. Twenty years ago, the typical foundation manager tended to be a semi-retired executive, and I didn’t see in those years the level of professionalism and caring and understanding and strategic vision that you now see. Now when you go out and see the various foundations that exist out there, you’re very impressed at the quality of the people now leading these foundations. So we have formed an advisory board of some of the biggest foundations in the industry, to give them a forum where they can come together, trade information, and discuss how we might all pull together on some kind of national charity effort.

Has that paid off? Our volunteer program has done 120,000 hours of volunteer work and we hope, as we open Chicago and Dallas that it will be even more. This year, we were able to coordinate volunteer efforts between New York and San Francisco. Companies like ACE, which has supported us for years and has its own volunteer day, coordinated it so we were all doing it on the same day. That type of horsepower, once you get coordinated nationally, is huge.

Where do you see your biggest growth opportunity for finding new volunteers? Right now, the IICF is still primarily property casualty oriented. But we very much want to bring in the life and health industries. We have had some participation, but we are always looking for more. Anyone interested in getting involved can visit us at www.iicf.org.

Interview By Bill Coffin