Calgary ranks high on the national United Way scale, but it's the people behind the campaign that make a difference.
This article appears in the December issue of Oilweek; photo with permission of Nexen.
By Peter McKenzie-Brown
“While the world is getting better, the disparity between the top and the bottom is getting greater,” according to Talisman CEO John Manzoni. “Those of us at the top who have benefitted from an astounding couple of decades of prosperity often forget that the things that have contributed to that prosperity have actually made things worse for some people.”
“Calgary itself plays a role in that,” he continues. “It’s an oil town, a hydrocarbon city. As the price of oil goes up so do costs…the cost of food, the cost of accommodation, the cost of fuel. As a result, people get left behind. All that’s happening in the financial sector is just exacerbating the situation. I am increasingly of the view that business has a moral obligation and responsibility to help to bridge those gaps.”
Those comments represent the windup to Manzoni’s reply to my question, “Why did you agree to co-chair this year’s United Way campaign?” Now comes the pitch. “If you can do something locally, that’s all the better. Based on that perspective, (the United Way) is a great opportunity to do something that helps.”
A relative newcomer to Calgary – he assumed Talisman’s top job from Britain four years ago – Manzoni also acknowledges business reasons to become involved. “From a selfish perspective, I’m new to the city and it’s a great way to get to know more people. There are many advantages to doing this in addition to the fact that you can do some good.”
Manzoni’s co-chair this year is Sue Riddell Rose – the CEO of Perpetual Energy, which has about 180 employees locally. A native of the city, Rose says she’s “involved in the program because it aligns perfectly with my goals and my husband’s goals and my family’s goals, and our vision of what we want the city of Calgary to be.”
She adds that “The United Way has been a presence in the community for quite a long time. It’s often been said that every dollar given to the United Way contributes six dollars of benefit to the community. That’s because the United Way helps fund high-impact programs that help the city avoid certain kinds of outcomes down the road. If you do that, you can save the system quite a bit of money.”
Campaign co-chairs “come from every part of the spectrum of the Calgary community – sports figures, small business, technology. It just happened that this year they’re both executives from the energy industry,” according to Ruth Ramsden-Wood, who has been the CEO of the Calgary and Area United Way organization for the last 14 years. On average each co-chair dedicates 46 hours to the annual campaign. “They lead a cabinet of 50 people who represent every segment of our society, from major energy companies to universities to unions,” she says. They “work with those people and they meet with people throughout the community for the whole year leading up to the campaign. It’s a pretty hefty role. They become very visible in the community.”
“We put a lot of time into developing our cabinet and they develop additional cabinets in their own sectors,” adds Susan Rose. “That enables our efforts to trickle down and into the community.”
Manzoni, Ramsden-Wood and Rose give the big-picture look at the United Way. If you narrow your focus to the workplace campaign, matters get much more interesting.
“Every company has its own fun events” says Susan Rose. “It’s part of the intrigue that you can use these events to express your own creativity. Something like 1,200 United Way campaigns will take place this year, and they will all be different. Lots of creativity comes into play, and that can be defining for companies’ cultures.”
What kind of fun? Ask Melanie Swanson, an integrity analyst at Nexen and chair of that company’s 2011 United Way campaign. Nexen’s theme is “Be a superhero,” and that theme led to a public relations home run for the company.
As the United Way season kicked off, hordes of company employees donned superhero costumes to test the previous world record for “most superheroes in a single place.” According to Swanson, “It was a lot of fun to organize the event, but the purpose was to breathe life into the campaign. There was an adjudicator from the Guinness Book of World Records present, and we had to meet particular criteria.” When the adjudicator announced that Nexen’s 437 superheroes had blown away the previous world record, a jubilant crowd went wild. The event got wide-eyed publicity across the full spectrum of media – from TV to Twitter.
The superhero stunt reflects a corporate culture that strongly supports the charity. A year ago Nexen and its 1900 Calgary-area employees contributed a jaw-dropping $1.4 million to the United Way. Half the total was a corporate contribution.
Nexen’s media success was the envy of other companies. According to Peter Ingle, Imperial’s surplus property manager and co-chair of the company’s campaign, “We have fun events, but I have to admit I’m a bit jealous of what Nexen did. I’d like to do something like that. Our events have tended to be more internal. For example, we have large-scale Wii competitions among our employees.”
Ruth Ramsden-Wood never tires of telling stories about corporate fun. For example, “a few years ago a law firm auctioned a goat for its chairman, and I can’t tell you how many e-mails came in from around the country making pledges.” She adds that many companies find imaginative ways to raise money. For example, for three months each year Esso markets $25 United Way gift cards at its service stations – while supplies last, of course. From each sale, two dollars go to the charity.
When it comes to individual campaigns, companies can do anything. According to Manzoni, “to kick off our campaign we had a breakfast for our employees, and about 300 or 400 came. We need events like that to tell people the stories out there – for example, to tell them about the children who go to school without breakfast. The number in Calgary is stunning – I think it’s 20,000. People need to know that, and we need to find ways to fix it.”
The high level of corporate support within Calgary has helped make the city a champion within Canada’s United Way network. Last year’s campaign raised about $52 million. In terms of total funds raised, that amount put the city in Canada’s number three spot. However, at $39.20 the city was fifth in terms of per capita giving. Fort McMurray was tops, with contributions of $64.78 per head.
Corporate support involves much more than cash, of course. First and foremost, it involves the work and commitment of individual volunteers. “If employees want to take time to work on the campaign, we let them have it,” says Manzoni, “and we find ways to make them feel special.”
Some companies lend people from their staff to the United Way. “We usually get them involved at the beginning of fall, and they work throughout the campaign,” according to Ramsden-Wood. “They become our arms and legs. I believe we have 35 this year, but in previous years we’ve sometimes had more. Companies do this to some extent because they see it as a leadership development opportunity for their employees.”
Nexen’s Melanie Swanson worked as a loaned rep with the United Way last year, and says she got a great deal out of the experience. “It gave me a sense of how much the United Way actually does. So this year I wanted to contribute again by chairing our corporate campaign.” Swanson and Peter Ingles are two good examples of how the system works, and how much effort is involved.
“I’m a big believer in the United Way and I have been ever since I joined the company 27 years ago,” according to Peter Ingle. “I think it’s a good way to be involved. The United Way targets funds in a very focused way.”
“At Esso we have two campaign chairs, and there is an overlap,” he says. “The lead co-chair is putting in maybe 20% of her time during the peak period of our campaign; I’m putting in about 10%. Next year I will do the bulk of the work while we train somebody else for the year after that. We have a really active cabinet, and we have floor leaders” whose job is to see whether their colleagues will open their hearts and wallets to the charity.
While Esso has a notional target of $1.2 million in contributions from Calgary-area employees, Ingle stresses that this is strictly an internal number. “Philanthropy is a very personal thing,” he says, “and we don’t do anything to influence where people direct their gifts. We designed the campaign to help people learn more about United Way and how it can help in our community, but we also send out a really clear message that (giving) is up to the individual.”
Nexen’s Swanson says that during this year’s peak campaign period she invested half of her time in the company’s campaign. A lot of that time went into the superhero event, which she says was designed to “increase participation in and awareness of the event.” Like Ingle, she was assisted by people on each floor who went from office to office talking up United Way giving.
In her case, they were called “Floor Superheroes,” and most of them trotted around with brochures in their Guinness-adjudicated superhero outfits. Asked how much time she and the other volunteers in her company have given to the cause this year, all she could say was “hundreds of hours.” She estimates that the cash cost of the campaign represented 1-2% of the total money raised.
Virtually all the larger companies in the energy industry make direct contributions to the United Way, but they follow quite different models. According to Ramsden-Wood, gift-matching is “really driven by the philosophy within the company.” The most common approach is gift-matching, by which companies match employees’ and often annuitants’ contributions. Gift-matching is usually dollar for dollar, but some companies match at even higher levels – in at least one case, three dollars for every dollar given by the employee.
Gift-matching can be a powerful motivator – especially since there is often no limit to the size of your gift, and you can actually direct your gift to a specific charity along those the United Way serves. Thus, whether you donate $10 or $10,000, matching funds will double the amount the charity receives. As Susan Rose explains it, gift-matching is a way “to show that the corporation is passionate about what our employees are passionate about. The United Way is not the only area where we match employee giving.”
Gift-matching can also cost a company dear. According to Ramsden-Wood, “Some years ago a retiree from Shell was giving huge amounts to the community (through the United Way), and the company matched him for every dollar he gave.” Last year, Shell and its people contributed five percent of the total raised in Calgary. Between 2000 and 2010, their contributions exceeded $32 million – a vivid illustration of the energy industry’s impact on the city’s not-for-profit agencies.
Unlike most other companies, Imperial doesn’t use the gift-matching model. Its Esso Foundation treats corporate United Way funding as part of its nation-wide community investment program. According to the company’s Jon Harding, “the total budget is based on community need in the regions where we live and operate. Over 17 communities across Canada receive funding as part of our annual United Way grants.”
While workplace campaigns are an extremely important part of the United Way calendar, the organization’s volunteers are active throughout the year.
In United Way parlance, leaders are those who give from $1000-$10,000 in a year and major donors are those who give more. According to Susan Rose, “We have a Leaders initiative, but we also have a Major Donors initiative and I’m very involved in those relationships.” As John Manzoni elaborates, “The vast amount of money comes from Leader level giving, so we want to increase leadership giving.” That is one area of the organization’s focus.
The other is to bring new people into the United Way – “to engage the younger generation.” Organization insiders describe this effort as their BeCause initiative. According to Rose, it “originated 10 years ago to try to get the aged 23 to 35 demographic – people who often don’t have the means to actually give – to become ambassadors spreading the good word about what the United Way is doing in our community. Our company actually has two BeCause ambassadors – young, high-potential employees. They are leading our United Way campaign. Ambassadors focus on the idea that if we work as a village we can make the city a better place.” It’s all about people power.
According to Peter Ingle, Esso also focuses “on getting newer employees engaged in the United Way. We encourage them to just give their time through our Days of Caring, for example.” This is a program in which a team from the company will go out and work in the community – helping repair and repaint a shelter for street kids, for example. At Talisman, Manzoni says, “we dedicate a week to the idea of having (our working groups share) ‘A Day That Makes a Difference.’ Members of our executive team get involved in volunteering somewhere, and people get involved with them.”
“I am inspired by the amount of work the many people involved in the United Way campaign actually do,” says Ruth Ramsden-Wood, who will retire this winter. “We are a chronically understaffed not-for-profit organization, and it is these people who make possible what we do each year.”