Updated March 24 at 11:24am

Firms still find ways to give in stagnant economy

By John Larrabee
Contributing Writer
At the Johnston headquarters of FM Global, it’s not unusual to find employees building castles from Legos. They’re preparing for a company contest that raises money for the United Way of Rhode Island.

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Firms still find ways to give in stagnant economy


At the Johnston headquarters of FM Global, it’s not unusual to find employees building castles from Legos. They’re preparing for a company contest that raises money for the United Way of Rhode Island.

Come by on another day, and you might find the office crew in gym clothes, handing over $20 each to run (or walk) in a 5K race around the corporate campus. Or maybe you’ll see executives grabbing up raffle tickets for novelty crafts, or hear a secretary belting out a few pop hits in a company talent show.

The worldwide insurance company has transformed corporate giving into a team-building, morale-boosting activity. “It energizes our employees, and allows them to give back while having fun,” explained Steven Zenofsky, assistant vice president and manager of public relations.

It also helps boost contributions. Last year saw United Way donations by FM Global employees climb to $370,000, with the company matching that two-for-one.

That generosity at FM Global is no anomaly. Charitable contributions by many Rhode Island companies and their employees were stable or rose last year, despite the lingering effects of the recession. That trend is expected to continue this year, which for one public charity got off to a strong start nationally.

Fidelity CharitableSM, which manages the nation’s largest donor-advised fund program, in July announced record-breaking contribution and grant levels for the first half of the year. Fidelity Charitable, reported a 30 percent increase in contribution volumes for the first six months of the year, an all-time high for the time period, resulting in $512 million in new charitable dollars, up from $457 million in the first half of 2010. Outgoing grants also set a record for the first half with $604 million going to nonprofit organizations nationwide. Fund managers cited favorable market conditions in the first half of the year as one reason for the increased giving.

The United Way of Rhode Island has set its fundraising goal at $13.8 million, up from $13.5 million the year before, according to Anthony Maione, the organization’s president and CEO. “Through it all, we’re persevering,” he said.

The global, economic woes of recent years have effected corporate giving in Rhode Island, at the United Way and other organizations as well. For a time, contributions actually dipped, even as the need was climbing. The Ocean State still struggles with double-digit unemployment. But despite that, corporations have started to loosen their purse strings.

All that has Maione feeling optimistic, though he admits he has no crystal ball. “We don’t have total numbers for this year yet,” he said. “We’re hearing a lot about ‘uncertainty’ right now, in the stock market and the economy overall.”

Executives at some Rhode Island businesses are confirming their donations rose last year, and they’re cautiously predicting their figures for this year will remain stable or increase slightly.

FM Global is one example. “We believe the United Way is the best way to get our donations to those areas with the most critical need,” said Zenofsky. “Last year we saw an increase of more than 11 percent over the previous year.”

Hasbro Inc., the Pawtucket-based toymaker, gave away about $23 million in grants and product in 2010. “Last year there was a bit of an increase,” said Karen Davis, vice president of community relations. “I think this year our numbers will be about the same. Giving has become more challenging because the need is up. There’s never enough to meet the demand.”

The United Way is hardly the only organization that benefits from corporate largesse. Hasbro, for example, directs a large part of company contributions to Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, and the company is known for its work with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank as well. Organizations from outside the area also receive contributions from Hasbro Children’s Fund, the company’s grant-making arm.

Hasbro is also involved with efforts to promote volunteerism and giving by young people. The company has pledged $5 million to support GenerationOn, an organization that teams up with teachers, parents, schools, and community organizations to encourage young people to become volunteers. Recently the company joined the organization to co-host a national awards ceremony for teen volunteers. Among those recognized: Nicholas Lowinger, a 13-year-old from Cranston, who organized a fundraising drive to buy shoes from children in homeless shelters.

Many of the larger Rhode Island-based companies make generous contributions to nonprofits year after year, regardless of economic conditions. In 2010, for example, the defense contractor Textron gave a total of $5,297,312.

“I can’t say for certain whether those figures will go up or down,” said David Sylvester, director of corporate communications. “But as a rule, the program has been very steady for many years.”

Though headquarters are in Providence, Textron has operations in several regions of the country, and overseas as well, which means the company often takes a global view when providing grants and donations. Nonetheless, a significant portion of their charitable funds go to Rhode Island organizations, including Rhode Island Community Food Bank, Rhode Island Mentoring Partnership, and City Year Rhode Island.

Employee volunteerism – with company help and encouragement – is one area of giving that has seen a significant boost in Rhode Island in recent years. “They’re telling us, I’m happy to give but I want to be involved, too,” said Maione. “This year we’ve seen an increase of about 30 percent, and that’s in a market where volunteering had been down.”

The United Way president notes that a crowd of volunteers was on hand to help run the organization’s Back-to-School celebration, which distributed backpacks filled with school supplies to 1,200 Rhode Island children. And volunteers are also flocking to United Way offices to assist with the Two-On-One line, a 24-hour-a-day telephone line that connects people to services they might need. The organization’s newly formed Women’s Leadership Council has also been active with efforts to promote education and literacy. “And not only through fundraising,” Maione said. “They’re finding ways to volunteer, by reading to kids and mentoring kids.”

A number of Rhode Island companies encourage volunteerism by allowing employees to take time off, often with pay. Hasbro, for example, offers four hours paid time off each month for volunteer work. Some employers also boost fundraising efforts by their staff. FM Global, for example, extends their two-for-one match on United Way contributions to employee donations to any charity. Textron does the same.

Companies are also taking steps to learn more about organizations that need help. That’s the role of the Grant Makers Council of Rhode Island, a group of corporate foundations and family foundations that meets monthly to discuss ways to direct their philanthropic giving. Members include Hasbro, Textron, Citizens Bank, Bank of America, Washington Trust Bank, Collette Vacations, Amgen, Amica and Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.

“It’s a great organization for roundtable talks on making decisions on grant requests,” said President Lynne Kelly, manager for community relations at Collette Vacations in Pawtucket.

Recently members visited a facility run by Home & Hospice Care of Rhode Island, where they were able to speak with the organization’s executive director and other staff. •


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