Caring for More than Just the Bottom Line
Small businesses giving back
By Tracy Barbour
The Wilson Agency
Image courtesy of The Wilson Agency
Many small businesses are donating their time and money in manifold ways to support communities throughout Alaska. For these companies, charitable giving is essential—even in challenging economic times. Altruism adds tremendous value to recipients and brings gratification to donors. Corporate philanthropy not only benefits Alaskans today but well into the future.
The following short profiles are just a few illustrations of how small enterprises are engaging in philanthropy across the state.
The Wilson Agency
The Wilson Agency has been a fixture in Alaska since 1964. As part of a family of companies that includes Albers & Company and ConnectHR, it strives to provide complete solutions for clients through its health, welfare, retirement, and HR advisory services.
Over the last several years, The Wilson Agency worked hard to fill its service offering to focus on a suite of employment/employer services, from employee benefits to retirement plans to HR-related services, according to President and CEO Lon Wilson. “We can meet the employer’s needs—no matter what size and stage—to help them develop a recruitment retention plan,” Wilson says.
The Wilson Agency’s mission is to empower people to lead a life of significance. That sums up the impetus behind its approach to philanthropy. The company supports a diversity of organizations in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Palmer, and Wasilla. For instance, it contributes time and money to healthcare-related organizations from Covenant House Alaska to Providence Alaska Medical Center.
The agency also donates to worthwhile causes that are important to its clients. “For example, one client supports Food Bank of Alaska, and every year they design a structure and build it, and we’ll provide a cash donation to Food Bank through that program,” Wilson says.
The Wilson Agency also provides support to various projects to which its employees actively volunteer their time. In addition, it maintains a matching gift program where it will match an employee’s contribution five to one, up to $1,000.
Each year, The Wilson Agency awards more than $25,000 to charities at the corporate level. Employees of the firm also volunteer through United Way’s annual Day of Caring, participate in blood drives, and other periodic charitable activities. Recently, for example, the agency stepped outside its regular giving to make a significant contribution to the capital campaign to build a new neighborhood health center in Midtown Anchorage.
Under another major initiative, The Wilson Agency adopted Anchorage Project Access about three years ago. As part its 50th anniversary celebration, the company raised in excess of $50,000 for the nonprofit, which coordinates donated healthcare for low-income patients.
Supporting different charities and causes is a core value for The Wilson Agency. “It’s incumbent upon us to lift us all up,” Wilson says. “It’s important to give back to the community that gives to you so we look for ways to try to make our community a better place to live for everybody.”
The Chariot Group
The Chariot Group is an audiovisual communications company that specializes in improving communication by connecting people and ideas through collaborative technology. But philanthropy is equally important to the Anchorage-based firm, which takes a multi-faceted approach to practicing benevolence. The majority of the firm’s charitable giving is done through in-kind contributions, primarily by donating the use of its conference center to outside organizations. The center is typically used as a venue for meetings by groups such as the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, the Society for Marketing Professional Services, and the Alaska Superintendents Association, says President and CEO Rick Thomas.
The Chariot Group also makes cash contributions to various organizations, including the Alaska Community Foundation, the Anchorage Downtown Rotary Club, and Anchorage Senior Center. It also donates services to support technology for a variety of community events.
The small firm and its sister company, The Strive Group, contribute generously to the community. For example, The Chariot Group donates about $22,000 annually to the Alaska Council of School Administrators and has contributed $25,000 to Covenant House Alaska over the past five years. “Our trade amount approaches $75,000 a year for all of our charitable giving,” Thomas says.
In fact, philanthropy is part of The Chariot Group’s value system and corporate culture, with employees from top to bottom involved in a variety of community-centric organizations from the humanities to professional organizations such as Special Olympics; Alaska Run for Women; Abused Women's Aid in Crisis (AWAIC); Skinny Raven Red, White & Blue; Boys & Girls Club; Bean's Café; Victims for Justice; and United Way. The range of statewide nonprofit groups reflect individual employee interests and a deep collective commitment to making a difference.
Their volunteerism is essential to Thomas. “I don’t want to work with a bunch of people who only care about the economics,” he says. “It’s required that everyone who works for us care for more than just the bottom line.”
That philanthropic culture not only benefits the community but it also translates into tremendous employee retention for the company. Thomas says: “Almost a third of our employees have been here ten years. Serving the community is one of the things that has helped us retain employees because they feel their contributions matter and are helping to build a positive sense of place.”
Thomas advocates charitable giving as an ongoing practice—even in tough economic times. He feels that cutting back on acts of kindness and caring for the less fortunate in times of financial uncertainty can be a tremendous mistake in the long run. Thomas’ penchant for philanthropy is driven by altruism: “It’s critical that we all give back and support our friends and neighbors,” he says. “If we don’t take care of our community, we won’t like the end results.”
Business Insurance Associates
Business Insurance Associates was established in 1995 as an independent commercial insurance, surety, and risk management brokerage serving customers across Alaska as well as the Pacific Northwest. Licensed in seventeen states, the Anchorage-based firm brokers a host of commercial insurance solutions, including general liability, workers compensation, property, commercial auto, directors and officers’ liability, professional liability, surety bonds, and pre-paid legal plans.
The owners and staff at Business Insurance Associates are heavily involved in supporting nonprofit associations and charitable causes. They donate funding and/or volunteer hours to the Civil Air Patrol, Alaska Dance Theater, Alaska Center for the Environment, Renewable Energy Alaska Project, Alaska Museum of Natural History, the Ron Jones Scholarship Fund at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Zonta Club of Anchorage, and One Family Community Birth Center.
This summer, Business Insurance Associates’ staff participated in the Barefoot Mile, an event held in Anchorage by JOY International to raise money for awareness and prevention of human trafficking. “Our staff raised $600 and walked barefoot for one mile through downtown Anchorage with Dr. Jeff Brodsky, the founder of JOY International,” says Chris Pobieglo, president of Business Insurance Associates. “The event, which was hosted by Davis Constructors and Engineers, raised over $200,000 for JOY International.”
Business Insurance Associates averages one hundred hours of annual community service, and its annual charitable giving ranges from $25,000 to $30,000. Those are pretty impressive numbers, considering that the company has a small office and a staff of seven, Pobieglo says. “This also doesn't include additional charitable acts our employees do on their own,” he says. “We've made being a part of the community an important part of our culture.”
In addition to its planned giving, Business Insurance Associates’ staff members keep bags in their vehicles to randomly hand out to homeless individuals in and around Anchorage. The bags—stuffed with socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hand warmers, sanitizer, band aids, and other useful items—are a simple way to help homeless people and remind them they are a valued part of the community. “If you see an orange bag, it's probably one of ours,” Pobieglo says.
There are many different organizations that provide vital services and support for people in the community, Pobieglo says. And at a time when funding is tight, it’s even more important for the private sector to step to the forefront and play a philanthropic role. “If you're a proponent of free markets, capitalism, less regulation, and smaller government, as many in the Alaska business community are, then you have to support nonprofit and charitable organizations,” he says.
"Everyone should give, whether it’s $5 or $500," Pobieglo says. “It all adds up, and it changes people's lives, even if you don't directly see it every day,” he says. “I am thankful to all the volunteers out there who give their time—often behind the scenes and without fanfare—to support these groups and organizations.”
Established in 1945, Yukon Equipment is one of the oldest heavy equipment dealers in the state. The company’s extensive product line includes crawler tractors, front-end loaders, excavators, and compaction equipment and attachments for residential and commercial projects. “We have sold equipment into every remote location throughout Alaska,” says President Charles Klever. “Our parts and services employees take care of customers’ needs year-round in every part of Alaska.”
Yukon Equipment, a subsidiary of Calista Corporation, serves customers out of three branches it operates in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Wasilla. The company provides charitable support to a variety of organizations and community projects. It donates cash as well as in-kind and other services to select 501(c)(3) and other charities. Yukon Equipment’s like-kind and volunteer projects provide equipment both bare and operated to help projects with construction equipment needs.
The company contributes money, products, and services to organizations ranging from Calista Education Foundation, CIRI Foundation, and Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation to Anchorage Sports Association, Greater Alaska Boy Scouts, and Barrow Utilities and Electric Cooperative.
“We feel it is good business to give back to the community,” Klever says. “Our employees feel strongly about giving to organizations in need. Our donations to Native-based organizations both directly and through our parent Native corporation continue ongoing.”
As a full-service advertising agency, Spawn Ideas strives to exemplify its name through its brand development, social media, web design, and other services. The Anchorage firm is as creative in its philanthropic undertakings as it is with its core services.
“First, we mentor community service,” says President and CEO Karen King. “Agency leaders have always been very involved in the community, volunteering, serving on boards, etc. Many younger staff follow this modeled behavior.”
Spawn Ideas—formerly named the Nerland Agency—is community-minded. The company purchases tables at local fundraising events and is a significant donor to Special Olympics Alaska, an organization that’s become near and dear to the agency. Spawn Ideas also matches United Way contributions of its employee-owners each year, up to $10,000. “That effort has made us a significant United Way donor for years and years, especially for a small business,” King says.
Traditionally, Spawn offers a pro bono program each year. The company selects a single nonprofit and treats it like a paying client, offering agency time and talent to address a challenge or opportunity. “Annually, that pro bono client receives services valued at $75,000 to $100,000—at no cost to them,” she says.
For 2017, Spawn Ideas modified its approach to community service. Now it plans to raise funds and new donors for a nonprofit cause each year. For this year, the agency chose breast cancer prevention and is encouraging for-profit companies to donate to the cause. Those that do will receive Spawn services totaling double their donation. King says: “So this year, if a for-profit we ask makes a $10,000 donation to a breast cancer cause, we’ll offer $20,000 in Spawn time and talent to the donor. If they donate $25,000, we’ll give them $50,000 of our time. We call it Dream Stream after the Dream Stream section of the South Platte River in Colorado [a place where fish live and breed]. Spawn’s Dream Stream cause-related effort is a place where ideas live and breed.”
Although volunteerism is important, King says, Spawn doesn’t focus on keeping a running total of its community service hours. “This is meaningful work that we simple believe in doing,” she says. “I can estimate that last year alone, the agency likely spent 1,800-plus hours. Our pro bono client last year was The Nature Conservancy [in Alaska and Colorado]. That effort, along with individual volunteerism, likely totaled those hours.”
King says she is always impressed by the Spawn team that works on the agency’s pro bono efforts—especially when a new or refreshed passion for the cause emerges. “Like the modeling of volunteerism and board service, doing work for or on behalf of nonprofits inspires more of the same,” she says
Anchorage is a small community that delivers an incredible lifestyle, from people and places to culture, King says. Philanthropy helps Spawn Ideas demonstrate its appreciation for and commitment to the community. “Giving back is our way to demonstrate gratitude and do our part to ensure that everyone who lives here benefits from the experience of living in this great community,” she says.
Other Businesses that Practice Philanthropy
Cary S. Keller, MD, FACSM, is the founder of Sportsmedicine Fairbanks, which offers comprehensive surgical and conservative treatment sports medicine and orthopedic injuries. He has worked for thirty-four years in Fairbanks and Sitka and traveled the state widely, providing teaching and consultation.
Keller is committed to giving back to the people of Alaska, and philanthropy is core to his personal philosophy.
For decades, he has been a steadfast supporter of the University of Alaska and the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, establishing and maintaining academic scholarships and supporting athletic teams and events at all levels. “Alaska is at its best when we provide meaningful educational opportunities for our people,” Keller says. “Education grows our workforce. Education enables us to solve the scientific and cultural challenges of today and the future. It’s the best investment we can make in Alaska.
Aside from financial gifts, Keller generously donates his time, talent, and experience. He introduced certified athletic trainers to state high schools in 1984 and has served pro bono since then as team physician for district high schools, University of Alaska Fairbanks teams, Arctic Winter Games, Eclipse Soccer, the Northstar Ballet, the Alaska Smokejumpers, the Chena River Run, and the Midnight Sun 10K. Keller also chairs the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee to the Alaska School Activities Association and is passionate about providing sports concussion education for schools and health providers throughout the state at his own expense.
Tracy Barbour is a former Alaskan.