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Companies encourage employees to invest in their communities

By Michael Boss
Special to the IBR

Andy Erstad, a founder and principle at the Boise-based firm of Erstad Architects, doesn’t equate the concept of “philanthropy” with simply opening up a checkbook. While his 12-person company has dollars to contribute to causes that reflect its mission and values, he believes that investments of time and talent leave a more lasting legacy than treasure alone.

“As a firm, we have encouraged our staff over the years to devote time to the community,” said Erstad. “The greatest reward is in planting a seed and watching it grow. If we don’t get involved, what motivation is there for others to get involved?”

Erstad’s sentiments are echoed by Laura Cobb, vice president of public relations and community development for Citi Cards, a division of Citigroup. “We have a long and proud history of local giving as a core component of the Citigroup mission,” said Cobb, “but we look for a balance between monetary funding and volunteer participation.”

As the ninth largest employer in Idaho, Citi Cards has a volunteer pool that is orders of magnitude greater than Erstad Architects, but it follows a set of guidelines similar to those of the much smaller firm when it comes to engaging its considerable resources.

“We allow for local community needs, but housing and financial education are major priorities for our corporate giving,” said Cobb. These priorities reflect the corporate mission and operations of Citigroup, and translate into engagement with some 40 nonprofits throughout Idaho whose efforts are aimed at neighborhood revitalization/affordable housing, financial education, and health and human services.

Citi Cards has been highly effective in mobilizing its 1,300-strong work force in major fundraising activities for organizations that include March of Dimes and United Way. For the former, Citi Cards assembled the largest walk team in the state; for the latter, the company contributed more than $200,000 last year.

It is in the direct engagement of its employees in volunteerism, however, that Citi Cards places the greatest emphasis. Two nonprofit organizations that provide excellent scope for Citi Cards volunteers are Boise Valley Habitat for Humanity and Neighborhood Housing Services.

Citi Cards employees are routinely part of the volunteer work force that works with Habitat for Humanity partner families in the construction of decent and affordable homes. Citi Cards volunteers also participate every year in Neighborhood Housing Services’ Paint the Town, Rake Up Boise, and Warm Clothing Drive events.

“For Paint the Town, we don’t just paint – we do mini-makeovers,” said Cobb.

Citi Cards further encourages volunteerism by giving every employee one day off a year for City Volunteer Day, and has created a Volunteer Management System for employees to log hours on behalf of Citi Cards as well as for personal volunteerism.

“Our employees logged nearly 10,000 hours last year, and so far this year they’ve logged 7,000 hours,” said Cobb.

While Andy Erstad’s firm can’t match Citi Cards from the standpoint of infrastructure and resources, he places a similar priority on employee engagement in the community – particularly in the area of education.

One effort that the firm supports is the Mentor Program at Taft Elementary in Boise, where every other Wednesday four Erstad Architect volunteers are paired with students who they will follow throughout their elementary school career. A typical day of mentoring is spent socializing with the students and helping them with schoolwork.

Both Erstad Architects and Citi Cards view volunteerism as an extension of professional development, and their employees serve on boards and executive committees of nonprofits whose missions reflect the concerns of their respective industries.

“We are very encouraging of involvement in trade associations and professional boards, such as the United States Green Building Council,” said Erstad. “A key element is that everyone goes into volunteer efforts with the understanding that no benefit will accrue other than a sense of gratification – the knowledge that what you are doing benefits the quality of life of the community.”

Both Erstad and Cobb agree that employees who are engaged in strengthening their communities are better employees.

“Finding a personal passion and perspective on what we value makes for a more well-rounded individual and creates loyalty and pride in where you work,” Cobb said.
Michael Boss is a Treasure Valley-based freelance writer.

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