Hands-on corporate philanthropy

TheStar.com – Opinion – Hands-on corporate philanthropy
July 21, 2008. Carol Goar

Corporate philanthropy is a well-established tradition in Canada. Thousands of companies donate money, goods and professional services to non-profit agencies.

Face-to-face giving is still rare. Only a few businesses open their doors to the people they’re trying to help.

General Electric did that one recent Friday.

It invited survivors of domestic violence from eight local women’s shelters to an all-day training session at its Mississauga headquarters. Volunteers walked the participants through the basics of looking for a job, writing a resumé, presenting themselves in an interview and coping with workplace stress. They set up a free boutique of office clothes, shoes and accessories contributed by employees. They provided transportation and child care. And they sent participants away with a binder full of practical tips.

As important as these efforts were, the real purpose of the day was simply to get the women into a corporate setting, make them feel comfortable and assure them that they had the ability to rebuild their lives.

“We want to build their confidence,” said Maria Skinner, co-chair of the project. “We want to make sure they understand they are worth it.”

More than a hundred employees from a dozen General Electric branches participated in the “Day of Empowerment.” They taught job skills, raised money, ran clothing drives, organized the kids’ program and linked up with various women’s shelters.

“For us, pooling our talent is much bigger than cutting a cheque,” explained Sarah Triantafillou, the event’s other co-chair.

GE has opened its doors to residents of Toronto-area women’s shelters for four years. This is the first time the company has talked about it.

The program was the brainchild of a former employee whose wife worked with abused women. He took his idea to the company’s volunteer committee, which agreed to test it.

The first year’s program was small and tentative. It involved one women’s shelter and a small group of employees. In each subsequent year, the number of shelters has increased and the team of volunteers has grown.

This year, 79 women and 54 children took part. They arrived by bus in the pouring rain, looking uncertain and out of place. By day’s end, they were animated and full of plans.

Leslie Ackrill, executive manager of Interval House, one of the shelters that participated in the program, said the greatest value of the program is that reconnects women to the world of work and shows them they’re not isolated and powerless.

“It’s incredibly important in terms of self-esteem,” she said. “The women get to see that the community at large is working to help them. It’s not just us at the shelters.”

Although the organizers have never traced how many of the participants got jobs, Ackrill doubts there is a direct cause-and-effect linkage. “A single day may not make the difference, but it builds momentum upward, onward and outward.”

As with most voluntary activities, the benefits flow two ways.

Skinner, who works in GE’s commercial finance division, remembers her first Day of Empowerment. She was leading the kids on a treasure hunt and reminded them not to wander off. “We have to stay safe.”

One of the little boys piped up: “It’s a good thing my father is not here.”

The remark chilled her, then made her realize how lucky she was as a mother to have a safe home and a good job.

“I felt guilty that it gave me so much more than I expected.”

Triantafillou, a public relations associate, postponed her vacation to take part in this year’s program. Her strongest memory was listening to the women describe their challenges at a stress and resiliency workshop. “Suddenly it became real. I felt proud to part of it.”

The organizing committee is already talking about what it can do better next year.

GE is not at all protective of its program. It would be delighted to share it with other companies.

Its employees would like to see more hands-on philanthropy. It puts the meaning back in corporate giving.

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