Corporate Funders Should Entrust Arts Funding to Their Employees

Corporate Funders Should Entrust Arts Funding to Their Employees

Traditional Hmong music filled the summer air at the inaugural Center for Hmong Arts and Talents' (CHAT) community festival. There was trepidation among the organizers. Not only did they worry that the community might not attend, they wondered whether Hmong elders would show interest in the teenagers' elaborate cartooning, and, likewise, whether those teens would be interested in their elders' traditional Hmong Paj Ntaub story cloths.

They needn't have worried. Before long, the fair was filled with an intergenerational, cross-cultural crowd enjoying the traditional and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar. And three St. Paul Travelers' employees, who were holding their collective breath, could feel the exhilaration of their work coming to fruition.

The event, which occurred almost four years ago, remains illustrative of the role that companies and their employees can play in their communities. Corporate philanthropy serves shareholders, employees, customers, and communities. In and of itself, this is nothing new. Many companies do it and do it well. Supporting the cultural heritage of the company's hometown and embracing the way in which one's community is changing are key to building goodwill.

At St. Paul Travelers, however, we have added a powerful component to our philanthropic philosophy: We entrust a significant portion of the arts funding and allocation process to our employees and provide them with the time and impetus to get involved in the grantmaking process from start to finish.

Employees review complicated applications and conduct site visits with the help of a nonprofit partner, in this case COMPAS. They decide on grant amounts. And they leverage their relationships with other organizations to ensure that the community receives the greatest possible return on St. Paul Travelers' investment. Our employees listen to the community and pour their hearts and souls into the nonprofits they fund. And through their efforts, we continue to build a stronger, more empathetic community.

But here's the impressive part: Our employees do this over their lunch hours, on weekends, and during occasional time off from their jobs. For the three employees involved in the CHAT festival, their initial involvement was only the beginning. Besides investing in the success of the festival by providing dollars, expertise, and their own sweat equity, they also worked with CHAT executives to leverage their support so that the festival the following year was even bigger and better and supported by a broader donor base. By the festival's third year, the employees knew that their investment in CHAT had resulted in significant community dividends, which encouraged them to expand their investment to a new project the production of a videotape of elders telling children's traditional stories in the Hmong language.

What audience were they hoping to reach? Hmong grandparents who take care of their grandchildren. Why? Because more and more Hmong children only speak English, and there is a prevailing sense that if the Hmong language is lost, the Hmong community will be weakened. The videotape gives grandparents and grandchildren something to share and reason to sit and spend time together.

Such efforts bear fruit not only for the people they are designed to benefit, but also for the company and its employees, which experience enriching, delightful, and unexpected outcomes. In this case, one of the three employees originally involved in the Hmong festival stayed close to the organization and took a copy of the videotape home. Now his preschooler knows her ABCs in Hmong! And the community building that takes place when children share their neighbors' culture speaking Hmong phrases and learning traditional Hmong stories has had an enormous impact in a number of places, including Saint Paul's public school system.

In the insurance industry, success is all about relationships and trust. St. Paul Travelers has learned that funding nonprofit organizations is important. But when coupled with employee passion and energy, that funding can be unstoppable. Our focus is on putting time and resources where they will make a substantial, sustainable difference, and to place our employees center stage in the decision-making process with the help of a nonprofit partner. The authenticity that comes with building relationships and doing high quality work that benefits the community reflects the care and professionalism we strive to exhibit in our business dealings.

The St. Paul Travelers Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, awards grants throughout most of the country. In addition to funding arts and culture, the foundation focuses grants on community development and education.