Building Communities, and Hope

Home builders and remodelers are giving back to their communities in creative ways that go beyond simply writing a check. Donating man-hours, mentoring, building playhouses for sick children or ramps for people in wheelchairs are some of the non-traditional ways those in need are receiving help. And for business owners who take that first philanthropic step, their charitable work typically has a life of its own and grows year after year.

Not that writing checks is bad. On the contrary, giving money to charities and community groups is a wonderful — and the most common — method of philanthropy that benefits those who need help. But some business owners generate money in ways other might not think of on their own.

What’s just as important as how a business contributes is why they contribute. For some business owners, they believe it’s simply the right thing to do. For others, the reasons are far more complicated. Ultimately, however, they all feel great about helping their communities.

“As a designer and builder, it’s exciting to view someone’s life like a raw piece of land, with all its issues and problems, and take that life and go through the building process, as you would with a home, and rebuild their life,” says Dan Packman, president, Design Blue, Newbury Park, Calif. “When you really care for someone, whether a stranger or not, you get a glimpse into their world and realize that we are so blessed with what we have.”

Bob Peterson, president, Associates in Building & Design, Fort Collins, Colo., says contributing to the community is the right thing to do. “In the mid-’80s I was in the corporate world. A vice president instilled in me — and my parents before him — that you’ll never give more than you get in this world. I’d say at my current age of almost 55, he’s dead on. It seems like the more you give away, the more keeps coming back,” he says.

Unexpected Benefits

Sometimes what comes back to those who give is not what is expected. Aside from helping others, and feeling the joy it creates, the marketing value of contributing to the community cannot be overlooked.

“When you give to the community, you’re going to get some visibility out of that,” Peterson says. “If it’s anything of substance, someone is going to notice it. And when they notice those things, they say, ‘Whoa, who’s ABD?’ It helped us greatly in formulating our brand, and I think giving back has actually put me in a position to be better at business. I don’t feel bad about the brand recognition or the marketing benefits because ultimately it has allowed me to be more giving.”

The marketing value of charitable work is not lost on Geno Benvenuti, president, Benvenuti and Stein in Evanston, Ill., either. “Marketing value is an important part of it. Giving money to an organization we believe in is just a wise way to spend marketing money, and we’re doing it in a way that makes a difference to someone else. You can spend thousands for an ad in a paper, but you can also spend it helping local charitable organizations, neighborhoods or communities.”

Benvenuti spreads his charitable work around, helping schools, holding fund raisers and contributing to silent auctions. This year the builder/remodeler will donate eight hours of carpentry time worth $500 to six auctions. “That’s a great way to give a donation but also to get our name out there. Over the years it definitely has helped our business. Whoever wins our time usually has asked us to do additional work. So in that way, we get something back for the effort,” Benvenuti says.

Charitable work can begin in as many ways as there are charitable people. For Packman, it began seven years ago when he needed a laborer. He picked up two laborers for the day. After a week with one of them, Packman learned the man’s mother passed away at an early age, and while a pre-med student his father died, which put him in a tailspin. Soon he was living in his car which was towed away. “The man had no addictions, but had to drop out of school, live on the street with no family, and began to pick up an alcohol addiction and drugs. We saw him four years after this,” Packman says. He built up credibility while helping this laborer get his IDs back, establish a back account, and get back on his feet.

Over the past 10 years, Benvenuti has been much more active with philanthropic programs than he was 20 years ago. “Little by little, you give one year and the next year you can’t say no. The list of groups we give to has grown longer and longer. We’ve been fortunate and can afford to give back,” he says. “Certain clients ask us to help one of their favorite charities, and when a client spends a few million with you, it’s hard to say no. But that’s fine because what you give out, you always get back somehow.”

Many Ways To Give

With a little thought and creativity, builders and remodelers have come up with interesting ways to contribute to their communities. Most of them donate money, but some go beyond that with special projects such as creating a 501c3 organization exclusively financed by donations, like Packman did. The group, called Standing On Stone, benefits people in the community. The budget is roughly $40,000, all of which goes to running the organization. “We’re frugal with how we spend the money, buying sleeping bags and tents, for example. Our goal is not to create comfort, but to keep people alive and give them hope. Once we gain their trust, then we can go to the next step,” he says.

Packman realizes that before talking about getting a job or spiritual issues, the priority is making sure core needs such as food and shelter are met. “That’s all they want. So we take care of that. There are no buildings we own, no operational costs.”

Packman cites successful examples of his mentoring process. “One guy came to us just down and out, with a minor drinking problem. He seemed like a sharp guy. He had his own landscaping company, but then had a nervous breakdown about three years ago. And now he has made a phenomenal recovery. Through mentoring him, he has re-established his business and is doing well. He’s my main landscape guy now and assists in design. I’m hooking him up with a local Rotary member to help him with his business skills. That has been an amazing thing to watch,” Packman says.

When the people Packman mentors show a level of success, he throws them safe work such as jobsite cleanup. “We work them hard, and I make sure the site supervisor doesn’t pull punches. Some guys have a tough time listening to instruction. So I need to sit them down, and tell them they have to listen. At that point, I’m not just a boss. I am their friend and mentor and there is a level of trust involved,” he says.

The mentoring process focuses on getting people familiar not just with the task at hand, but with the construction process in general. Packman won’t mentor in a specific trade such as finish carpentry, but instead provides a glimpse of his world including budget, scheduling and consideration of the other people involved. “A lot of these guys are mavericks, autonomous, and don’t want to deal with the system. They have a propensity to be sensitive to other people. I teach that it’s not just you doing your work, but there’s a painter that comes in behind you, and other people in front of you. They must appreciate other trades. It’s about getting them off themselves because they’re very selfish, almost like they are entitled because many things have been taken away from them.”

Peterson chooses to stay local with his charitable work. Some of the national charitable groups don’t get his money, but the local humane society and safe house do. Peterson’s company also donates in-kind work for groups that need help.

One hugely successful project Peterson is proud of began in 1997 when he solicited five partners to buy, remodel and donate a home for charity. “Six of us bought a $200,000 house and turned it into a $500,000 property, and had it sold before it was framed. We also entered it into our local parade of homes, and we got phenomenal mileage out of it. We were able to write a check to United Way for $30,000,” Peterson says.

In 2000 Peterson’s company did it again, but on its own this time. A couple bought a property and wanted to donate the profit to charity. On a $600,000 remodel, Peterson was able to write a $20,000 check to a local charity.

Perhaps a bigger success in terms of growth is the wheelchair ramp program Peterson began. In a few years, more than 50 ramps were designed and built for those in need. Peterson even won an NAHB award for the program. “We started our own 501c3 organization called Building the Future, to protect us from a liability standpoint. We set it up, collect donations when we can, and build up funds for the wheelchair ramp projects,” he says.

Contributing service time to silent auctions is a favorite method of Geno Benvenuti, who once donated $3,000 of design time, but lately has auctioned off carpenter time. Benvenuti’s contributions have helped schools and day cares through community fund raisers.

Another way Benvenuti helps the community is by serving on the board of a group called Housing Options, which provides housing and services to people suffering mental illnesses. These people are capable of living independently but need services and subsidized housing. His involvement consists of monthly board meetings, with one or two times a month where he will be involved in housing projects.

“We’re currently remodeling a 10-unit building that will house 18 people,” Benvenuti says. “All the funds were donated by one person, who donated a million dollars. And the state donated almost a million, also. It not only provides housing, but it also provides social services, psychiatric care and a sense of community for these people. That was a perfect fit for me, where I could lend some of my building expertise to help the community.”

Getting Employees Involved

As a business owner, it’s easy to commit to helping the community as the right thing to do. But what’s the best way to get employees on-board? Step one is to make employee involvement strictly voluntary, and expect that some employees will write checks, some will donate time and some won’t participate at all.

“If we’re doing an in-kind event we let employees know we’ll be there on Saturday, and say, ‘If you could come by, that would be great.’ We get about 30 to 40 percent participation. Another 30 to 40 percent couldn’t care less. The others are hit and miss,” Peterson says.

Benvenuti provides motivation by participating in events that boost employee morale. Employees work at a soup kitchen and cook desserts for 100-plus people, for example. “That’s something that builds a sense of community within the organization. We have 45 people in the company, and easily get 10 or 15 people that step up and feel they want to give back, too. It’s a little of their time. That’s all it is. If I said, ‘I really need your help,’ I could get 80 percent to volunteer easily.”

Finding the time comes naturally for philanthropic business owners. Packman gets a charity-related phone call every day, and has a meeting once a week. The total is an hour a day, seven days week, which is not much to make a difference.