Heart Smart: Firm's Giving Is Grassroots Employee Effort

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By Deanna C. White

For many accounting firms today, charitable giving is simply a daily part of doing business, as CPAs increasingly look to firm leadership to provide an outlet for their natural inclination to give back. 

But with so many worthwhile causes to choose from, it can be difficult for firms to select a charity that truly reflects the altruism of its entire workforce, particularly when, as  in the case of New York City–based public accounting firm Berdon LLP, that workforce includes more than 350 employees.

But Berdon has found a solution to the well-intentioned conundrum of picking the perfect cause. The firm simply asks its employees which charities they'd like to donate to – all 350 of them.

"We look to our own people for ideas", said Karen Froewiss, director of Human Resources at Berdon. "Employees who have a cause or charity they feel strongly about can come to us and we'll arrange a specific day to support that cause."

Berdon leaders say it's a solution that benefits both its employees and the number of diverse nonprofit organizations at the receiving end of the firm's charitable support.

"Our charitable giving comes from the very top of our firm, which is one of the reasons I believe it has been so successful", said Kayte Steinert-Threlkeld, chief marketing officer at Berdon. "Our comanaging partners believe in charitable giving as individuals and at the corporate level. We have a very kind, gentle, and loving environment here at Berdon, and we really do believe in the motto 'do good and good will follow'."

Steinert-Threlkeld says Berdon's charitable giving program begins with an open-door policy. Every Berdon employee is invited to nominate organizations they feel are deserving of charitable giving – organizations they personally feel passionate about – to the firm's human resources department. Berdon's human resources department then reviews those requests and selects organizations eligible for a monthly charitable giving event. 

"Our goal is to have an internal drive to help those in need at least twelve times a year", Steinert-Threlkeld said. "We have supported everything from animal rights to education to the fight against hunger."

During each monthly event, employees who would like to participate are invited to make a donation to the cause. Recent drives have included the monthly Wear Jeans to Work Day to support different charities, as well as the Skip Lunch to Fight Hunger drive held in June to benefit New York's City Harvest food rescue organization.

In 2013, Berdon also raised funds for the National Lung Cancer Partnership, Animal Haven in New York, and New York Blood Center.

In addition, Berdon recently used the framework created by their charitable giving program to honor the legacy of a Berdon employee, Andrew Quek, who passed away in 2013. 

After asking Quek's parents, both of whom are dentists, how their son would like to be memorialized, the firm and its employees contributed to the Andrew Quek Memorial Fund at the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in New Jersey, which provides dental services to underprivileged children in Newark. The memorial fund was created by the Quek family. 

"It was a nice way to commemorate our colleague by contributing to something directly requested by his family", Steinert-Threlkeld said.

Additional fundraisers planned for 2013 include drives for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure®, Cell Phones for Soldiers, and Toys for Tots, among others.

Steinert-Threlkeld said Berdon uses several methods to incentivize employees to participate in their internal fundraising drives. For example, those who donated their "lunch money" on Skip Lunch to Fight Hunger Day were treated to a spread of specialty pizzas, which turned the event into a fun, team-building activity.

The firm also regularly sponsors teams in athletic leagues or charitable events, like 5Ks, and, most effectively, the firm sometimes matches employee donations to encourage fundraising.

"Someone who might give $10 will be inclined to give $20 knowing that it will ultimately mean $40 to the charity", Steinert-Threlkeld said. 

Taylor Ulezalka, a supervisor at Berdon, said one of the greatest gifts in giving through Berdon's program is knowing her firm and her coworkers are willing to wholeheartedly support her in supporting something she firmly believes in.

Earlier this year, Ulezalka's favorite cause, the Henry Viscardi School at the Viscardi Center in New York, was selected for one of Berdon's internal fundraising drives. The school provides a traditional educational setting for children with severe disabilities who often require life-sustaining medical treatment throughout the day. 

"My best friend has a brother who was born with cerebral palsy, which is how I became aware of the cause", Ulezalka said. "All of the children at the Henry Viscardi School have severe disabilities and have to be connected to life-sustaining machinery. Many of them cannot communicate [without assistance]. But the fabulous thing the school does, is it gives them the ability to communicate, go to school, and have a normal life. Eighty-percent of their graduates are able to go on to college."

Taylor said Berdon's efforts gave her the chance to "make 350 more people" aware of the wonderful work done at the Henry Viscardi School.

And it gave her something else as well – the realization that her "work family" values her input, her ideas, and the importance of giving and generosity.

"It made me feel so good to know I had the support of my firm . . . that they were standing behind me for something I believe in", Ulezalka said. "I don't think that's common in the workplace. It builds a sense of camaraderie. It promotes the feeling that you're doing something [bigger]. The more you give, the more you want to give. It's a nice message the firm is sending, and it's working."

That's welcome news to all at the firm, Steinert-Threlkeld said, where they take their motto "Berdon Heart, Berdon Smart" very seriously.

"Giving to these specific causes is important to us, but what we really want employees to take away from our charitable giving program is that it's good to give in general so they want to continue to give", Steinert-Threlkeld said. "We're trying to instill and promote acts of generosity."

Visit Berdon's website for more information about its charitable giving efforts.

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