By Michael W. Sasser
For many corporations and large private businesses, charitable giving is an ingrained part of the internal culture. More often than not, such charitable support manifests in the form of an annual drive, often around the holidays or for a set period each year, and usually to a major or several major umbrella organizations such as the Red Cross, National Cancer Society, United Way, etc. Most people are familiar with the dynamic; the company has a goal and supervisors and administrative staff are generally charged with collecting from employees to help achieve those goals.
However, at Cox Communications in Oklahoma, the 100-plus year-old privately held company, a different culture was developing with a different vision of charitable giving – and the results have been empowering to employees and a huge boon to the communities of the Sooner State.
"Our community involvement and taking care of our employees is built into our values and have been since the very beginning when the Cox family founded the company," said Christine Martin, communications director for Cox Communications in Oklahoma. "We are very much rooted in that kind of involvement with the communities we serve. It's a part of our culture. It's who we are."
What is being rebranded as Cox Charities and now encompassing service areas in adjacent states as well, began its unique change of approach in 2005.
"That year, we had heard that employees wanted to have more say in their charitable giving," said Elizabeth King, a Cox Charities administrator based in Tulsa. "There is an amazing culture among our employees when it comes to supporting the community and one another. They get it. We had other employee-funded structures in place in other offices and wanted to do something like that."
Cox employees were empowered to take a more active role – and they stepped up. In the unique model, Cox employees fund and are the guiding force behind the company's giving. Twenty front-line employees, managers and below on the corporate chart, evaluate requests for grants and make giving decisions without senior employee involvement.
"It's very unique," King said. "It has created a tremendous buy-in from the employees and fostered a lot of enthusiasm."
Martin added that many companies have a charitable foundation.
"None that I am aware of, however, are funded and controlled by employees," she said. "That's the difference. Requests for grants are reviewed by front-line employees, such as installers and appointment setters. They are the ones driving the effort."
The innovative approach also works. In the 2013 campaign, 83 percent of employees participated in the program, raising a significant $665,000.
"That's not corporate funding," King added. "It was deducted from paychecks and administered by the employees themselves."
In fact, the grassroots approach has worked since the very beginning. The goal for the inaugural 2006 campaign was $40,000 because that was the amount the local office raised for the United Way in previous years’ more traditional charitable set-up. Instead, there was a 61 percent participation rate and more than $100,000 was raised. Subsequent years saw numbers consistent in the worst of recent times, and to edge up despite the hangover headache of the global recession.
"We spend a lot of time looking at trends," Martin said. "The past three or four years, we thought we would see a real drop-off. However, instead of a drop-off, we have found that even in the worst of economic conditions, the numbers were consistent and usually went up."
Cox Charities, driven by its employees, make significant impact on the communities it serves with two types of grants. The first program on the annual calendar is grants for Innovation in Education, accepted and evaluated beginning February 1. Innovation in Education grants range between $1,000 and $10,000 and are intended to support true innovation in classrooms around the state. Beginning on April 1, applications for $5,000 Community Investment grant requests are reviewed and funding decisions made. Community Investment grants target a wide variety of needs in the community.
"Education, health and human services, technology, the arts.... Because we have such a big, diverse group of employees with different passions and perspectives, they are able to narrow things down to those that have the most impact on the community," King said. "They end up with a well-balanced group of recipients. They try to represent the whole community in making their decisions. Since the recession, there has been a big spike in need for basic physical things, but it has been leveling off."
King explained that Innovation in Education grants can address any subject matter. "Often they help teachers who have great ideas but don't have the money to implement them," she said. One example is a Broken Arrow High School program for CSI/forensics as a component of science classes. The following year, Science and English departments partnered together, and students created murder mysteries that could be solved through the use of what was learned in the forensic science program.
"These are the kinds of things our employees like to focus on – real hands-on innovation," King said.
Community Investment grants assist a vast array of causes and front-line organizations, as determined by participating employees and their representatives. And most employees are involved, King said.
"It is really tied to employee engagement," she said. "They own this. It's their foundation. Everyone pooling their resources can do more than any one of us can do on our own."
Of course, Cox has long been a leader when it comes to supporting and assisting its own employees. Through its partners at the Tulsa Community Foundation and the Oklahoma City Community Foundation (who also manage the foundation funds), Cox provides scholarships for employees and their family members. The Cox Cares program also assists employees with short-term financial assistance when facing unexpected challenges.
"When our employees are struggling, we want to help them get over the hump," King said.
Martin pointed out that last year, the need for Cox to support its employees and co-workers came sharply into focus.
"A lot of employees who lived in the Moore area had their houses leveled," she said. "Within 24 hours, we were on-site, helping employees. Our employees were amazing. The Community Investment grants are terrific, but working with people whom you know have been helped by our programs in times of need is very powerful. Employees know their co-workers have their backs."
The rebranding as Cox Charities is intended to standardize titles in the six Cox zones in the U.S. While the names will be similar in an effort to make sure people know what Cox Charities and its sister programs do, each zone will retain their own "flavor," Martin said. Today, the Central Region encompasses Oklahoma and parts of Kansas, Arkansas and Nebraska.
"Funds raised in a market will stay in that market," Martin added. "We are adding areas, but the funds don't go into one pool. Money raised in Tulsa will stay in Tulsa, while money raised in Oklahoma City will remain in Oklahoma City."
"We truly believe in giving where you live," King said.
Martin said one future goal is to increase awareness of the grant availability.
"A lot of things we do touch customers and the community," she said. "The biggest thing is that almost everybody has a child in a classroom or is involved in non-profits. We'd like to make sure our customers explain the opportunities to teachers and those involved in non-profits. We want awareness. We work directly with schools and other organizations, but it is beneficial to have people spreading the word."