Human Resources and the Gift of Nature

FI-office-givingby Snowden Bishop~

A remarkable movement of corporate social responsibility is gaining attention across the country lately – remarkable in light of the economic turbulence that has left a wake of soaring unemployment and budget cutbacks in nearly every sector.  Despite the economic challenges, major corporations, government institutions and private businesses continue to offer corporate giving programs that enable employees to make pre-tax contributions that support a host of charitable organizations. Some even encourage employees to participate in the giving programs by offering incentives like matching contributions or paid time off for community fundraising events and volunteering opportunities.

While some employers allow their employees to freely choose which non-profit organizations they can support through the program, others adhere to guidelines set by charitable federations like United Way, America’s Charities or Global Impact. Among these organizations, guidelines typically limit employee options to a selection of humanitarian concerns such children’s charities, health causes, social service and other community outreach initiatives that are funded through the company’s partner federation.  While these are very worthy causes, environmental non-profits are often excluded, despite the inextricable relationship between the environment and public health, social well-being and national security.

Here in Arizona, a number of public and private employers are now offering employees an environmental option for the very first time via Environmental Fund For Arizona (EFAZ), a federation of 29 environmental and wildlife conservation nonprofits. EFAZ has successfully worked with public and private sector companies that restrict employee-giving campaigns to health and human services organizations.

The LEED Platinum certified Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center is a nature center in the heart of Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area

“We have been accepted into many companies adhering to this guideline because they recognize that human health is dependent upon environmental health. Our partner organizations protect health and human welfare in the most fundamental way,” said Laine Seaton, Executive Director of Environmental Fund For Arizona.   According to Seaton, EFAZ successfully participates with companies offering side-by-side campaigns that are not mutually exclusive. “Offering employees an environmental option is a great way to add a ‘green’ component to employee giving efforts while maintaining an existing relationship with other federations such as United Way.”

“We pride ourselves in the diversity of our culture – with so many employees, they have different backgrounds and interests. If you limit your choices, you’re not reaching your full potential,” said Karen Christensen, a systems engineer at Ratheon, southern Arizona’s largest private employer that offers its employees EFAZ campaign options to diversify its corporate giving program.

The City of Phoenix also began working with EFAZ as a way of diversifying its employee giving program.  Until then, city employees had only one option for giving – the United Way. Alana Favela an information technology services employee for the City of Phoenix found it beneficial when the city diversified the giving options, especially for the younger employees.  “The younger generation is so diverse – a lot of diversity in what they believe and care about.”

EFAZ is the only federation of environmental and conservation groups in workplace giving campaigns in Arizona. What began as a collaboration of eight environment and conservation groups in 2001 has grown to an alliance of 28 member organizations working together on critical issues affecting Arizona.  Today, EFAZ is included in 26 workplace campaigns and has raised nearly $1 Million in donations for its member organizations.  Through the corporate giving campaigns, employees are given the option to support member organizations individually or donate to a general fund that spreads the money raised evenly to each member organization.  The money raised has made a significant impact in Arizona by studying and rehabilitating plant life and wildlife and protecting wild habitats, advocating for renewable energy, clean transportation and water reclamation, and raising awareness about sustainability, waste reduction and other environmental issues through education and community outreach.

The environmental option has been beneficial for DMB Associates, Inc., an Arizona-based Real Estate investment and development firm that has acquired unique lands along with the responsibility to preserve them.  As a result of their interaction with EFAZ, their employees have become active participants in these efforts.

“A healthy environment is a critical part of our quality of life. Getting out into nature helps restore us all to sanity,” notes Seaton. The objective of EFAZ is to coordinate programs that encourage people to engage with nature.  Member organizations offer campaign partners’ employees field trips into wilderness places and also make presentations about natural resources, sustainability and environmental issues in boardrooms and classrooms throughout the state.

The Desert Botanical Garden teaches and inspires visitors from the local community and around the world and preserve the desert’s natural beauty.

“It’s really worthwhile to get involved. This opens up a whole new door and gives our employees more opportunities to give back to the community,” said Laura Rogers, Human Resources Manager Orcutt Winslow, a company that has stressed giving back to the community since founded in 1972. “Green is the hot topic now and so as we’re being ‘green’ in our work and designs, we can also support ‘green’ in our environment.”

According to Seaton, the employee response has been very positive and interactive with the tours, workshops, volunteering and other outreach events where they can get involved personally with making a difference.   “I feel good that, even in a small way, what we do helps to get others excited about preserving the natural treasures of Arizona.”

The financial upside benefits not only the receiving organizations but the employers and employees as well.  The employee payroll deductions are pre-tax contributions and the matching contributions are tax deductible for the employers. Working with a federation such as EFAZ allows corporations to participate in philanthropic giving without expending internal resources to do so.

One advantage of working with a federation like EFAZ is that the non-profits will receive more of the intended gift. Whereas some United Way affiliates will permit an employee to write in an environmental organization to receive the gift, they charge on average a 9.5% “pledge loss” fee for donations to non-United Way organizations.  Furthermore, they can impose minimum donation for non-United Way charities written in by the employee. By representing these excluded environmental groups in its own federation, EFAZ can protect the intended donations to ensure the maximum goes to the receiving organizations, and EFAZ imposes no minimums on any gifts made.

“We’re committed to continue building our alliance and increasing awareness and donations through PR and networking and by adding new campaigns. Our goal is to  reach 100 campaigns by 2015,” said  Seaton. “As the only ‘green’ choice in workplace giving in Arizona, we have an outstanding opportunity to leverage this niche and partner with companies and organizations that are committed to sustainability, the environment, and conservation.”

Seaton is convinced that the value goes deeper than just financial advantages across the board.  “It’s not about writing a check. It’s about engaging employees – getting them plugged into the issues they care about and giving them opportunities to help via their time, talents, or donations,” she explains. Studies have shown that employees appreciate having expanded choices in their campaigns, which ultimately leads to increased giving and participation overall.

For more information about how you can add Environmental Fund For Arizona to your corporate giving campaigns and learn more about the organizations’ efforts, visit www.efaz.org.

Editor’s Update 12-6-11:  This article has been updated since it was first published in AZGreen Magazine in the 2010 Holiday Issue — worthy of resurection because of the incredible strides EFAZ has made in the past year.  In October, EFAZ celebrated its 10th anniversary of service to Arizona, and launched its first Green Spirit Awards by recognizing American Express and the City of Phoenix for their environmental campaign excellence.  AZGreen Magazine was proud to be a sponsor of the event along with Southwest Gas and Green Nurture.  Keep up the amazing work, EFAZ! 

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