Five business leaders extol the virtues of taking on a good cause.
Philanthropy, donations, volunteering: most people respect the value of selfless giving, but for many it isn’t a daily reality. Some may want to make a difference, but don’t know where to begin. Others may contribute financially to worthy causes, but don’t believe they have the time to get personally involved. Some may be involved in charity work and are looking for ways to get others to join the cause.
Getting personally involved with charitable pursuits beyond writing a cheque is a growing trend. “People want to be more engaged,” explains David Gent, executive director of the Vancity Community Foundation. “They want to see and understand how they’re making a difference.”
Faye Wightman, president and CEO of the Vancouver Foundation, agrees. “When you volunteer with a charitable organization, you understand the issues at a deeper level,” she notes.
Finding a cause that is close to one’s heart often leads to a deeper involvement and longer-lasting relationships with organizations. Whether it’s something you’re passionate about or an experience you or a loved one has been through, Gent says that people almost always choose to get involved with charitable organizations dealing with issues they care about. “Think about what charges you up,” he suggests.
Wightman was surprised to discover that the most common reason people provide for not getting involved in giving is that they don’t think they have anything to offer. “This is shocking,” she says. “Everyone has something to offer. Everyone. Start with your neighbourhood; find out what’s going on, where people need help.” She also suggests that speaking directly to a charity is beneficial: you can tell them about yourself, what your time and budget constraints are and what you’re passionate about. A charity should do its best to find a good match for you.
Another way to get involved is by networking. Janet Austin, CEO of the YWCA of Metro Vancouver, believes that sharing information with colleagues and friends leads to becoming more involved in charitable pursuits.
Vancity’s Gent agrees. “Build on the relationships you have. Connect with people who are doing the work you care about,” he suggests. He also believes that social media is a great way to make or maintain relationships that can lead to philanthropic work.
Austin notes that charitable organizations can help foster personal commitments by demonstrating and disclosing how people’s gifts of time and money are being used and what the results are. “People today want a better understanding of the impact of their gifts, so it’s important that charitable organizations are transparent,” she explains. “This leads to long-term relationships between donors and charities.”
Sometimes it’s a matter of people not realizing how enriched their lives will become once they’re involved with a charitable organization. “You feel like you’ve made a difference,” Wightman enthuses. “You become an integral part of your community, you develop personally and you form lasting relationships with others.”
All agree that, fortunately, there is a strong and growing philanthropic community in B.C., both on corporate and individual levels. We caught up with a handful of prominent people in Vancouver who continue to make philanthropy a priority in their lives, and whose examples and advice might serve as an inspiration to all of us.
For Sarah McNeill, giving back started one magical Christmas. McNeill, chief acceleration officer at McNeill Nakamoto Reruitment Group Inc. (a company she co-founded with her business partner, Cheryl Nakamoto), got involved with the Big Sisters of B.C. Lower Mainland to provide Christmas hampers to families in need, and she was shocked to see the hardships local families were facing. One family in particular stood out: a girl in the Big Sisters program whose 19-year-old brother was raising her and another brother, all on his own. It was then that McNeill realized that she could make a difference.
Since McNeill and Nakamoto were two young women who had started a successful company, making Big Sisters their charity felt right. “We wanted to help young girls make good choices and give them a chance to succeed,” McNeill explains. She got involved with the Big Sisters in 2003, first with the Christmas hampers, then with the annual gala. She started the successful GrapeJuice wine auction in 2007 and she explains that people’s contributions through it have a huge impact, since almost every fundraising dollar from this event goes right back into the charity.
For McNeill, the rewards of her role with Big Sisters are many. “Seeing little sisters graduate from school, speak with confidence in front of a crowd at a gala, get a chance at a bright future where before it looked bleak – it’s amazing,” she says. She adds that charity work is also impressive on a resume. “It shows that you care about community, not just about money.”
McNeill also believes that corporations have a responsibility to give back to the community that has enabled their businesses to thrive. “People notice. Charity work gives more credibility to a company,” she says.
Even her young children have taken note; they have been known to collect their own change to donate to Big Sisters. McNeill’s daughter recently said that “Man in the Mirror” was her favourite Michael Jackson song because it only takes one person to make a change. One of McNeill’s favourite quotes is from Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better – it’s not.”
McNeill notes that whether writing a cheque or donating time is best suited to you “depends on where you can offer the most influence. It’s a very individual thing.” She points out that it’s best to speak to the charity you’re interested in to find out what kind of help it needs. “Do what feels right for you,” she comments. “If you can’t get involved personally, do something else; get involved however you can.”