Local companies prioritize hands-on giving

Pratt & Whitney employees volunteering at Veterans Healing Farm
PLANTING SEEDS: Pratt & Whitney employees help garden at the Veterans Healing Farm near Hendersonville. Photo courtesy of Pratt & Whitney Communications

For many years, Whit Zeh believed that working for nonprofits was the only way she and her husband could make a difference in the world. “We thought that we needed to have the same struggles as the nonprofit world,” she says.

That changed when her friend Meredith Ellison, co-founder of Symmetry Financial Group, invited her to come build the local insurance company’s philanthropic arm back in 2017.

“Meredith sat me down on the couch and said, ‘You are going to be able to make a larger impact coming to a for-profit company that cares,’” Zeh recalls. Ellison stressed that her company’s workforce, which was larger than those of most local nonprofits, could be mobilized not just for financial donations but for regular community service.

Under Zeh’s leadership as senior director of corporate well-being and community outreach, the company and its employees have raised over $1.4 million for various community-based organizations across the country and an additional $1 million for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, according to the company’s website.

“Insurance is a wealth-producing industry,” says Zeh, adding, “If we’re bringing in wealth, we have got to push it back out.”

The dollars, however, tell only part of the story. Zeh’s employer is one of a number of local businesses that are making community service a fundamental part of company culture. Whether it’s helping build microhomes in BeLoved Village or pulling weeds at the Veterans Healing Farm near Hendersonville, these enterprises are redefining corporate philanthropy.

The circle of giving

When Zeh began working at Symmetry, the company had 65 corporate staff members and roughly 2,600 contracted insurance agents. A 2020 merger with the Roseville, Calif.-based Asurea created Quility, which now boasts over 5,200 agents and more than 200 corporate staff members nationwide. Meanwhile, the one-two punch of the expansion and the pandemic compelled Zeh to get creative about how to scale up the volunteering process, she explains.

To that end, she recently piloted a virtual giving circle — a philanthropic mechanism in which a group of people comes together to pool their resources and determine which causes and organizations they want to support. Zeh opted for this model, she says, because Quility’s focus on empowering women aligned with the fact that 70% of giving circle members in the U.S. are women.

The pilot project led to a collaboration with BeLoved Asheville. On Sept. 29, one of Quility’s volunteer teams spent a day helping build affordable homes at the BeLoved Village. Two employees flew in from California to be part of the event.

“The work that they did that day really moved the village forward in terms of what we’re trying to do,” Amy Cantrell, BeLoved’s co-director, told Xpress.

And though Brook van der Linde wasn’t part of the giving circle, the digital content specialist also pitched in that day. The Asheville resident, who came to Quility after five years working for The Haywood Street Congregation, says she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with another organization that’s dedicated to empowering homeless people. “To jump in and have my hands in the world that I’m most familiar with … is very meaningful to me,” she explains. “Those are the days I very much look forward to.”

To encourage that spirit, Quility plans to establish more giving circles next year. Helping to coordinate them will be 30 cultural ambassadors, a position the company just created this fall. These employees will focus on building company culture around three pillars: women’s empowerment, personal growth and well-being, and community outreach, notes Zeh.

Another local beneficiary is Bounty & Soul. “Our roots with Quility run deep,” says Karla Gardner, the organization’s director of community engagement. In the last few years, she continues, Quility staffers have probably volunteered with the nonprofit more than a dozen times. Besides packing and delivering produce boxes to people in need, they’ve helped out at Bounty & Soul’s community markets, distributing healthy meals cooked by the nonprofit’s staffers and working the kids activity area.

“Every time I’ve worked with a team, they’ve been superengaged and asked a lot of thoughtful questions,” says Gardner. “You can tell that the energy and enthusiasm are there.”

Meanwhile, Quility’s audiovisual team has donated staff time and equipment to help various local organizations put together promotional materials.

Zeh estimates that each of the company’s roughly 30 teams put in three to five hours per quarter. And when contracted agents can’t make it to their teams’ events, they’re encouraged to do some kind of service wherever they are.

“My husband’s in the military, so I’m passionate about food insecurity around military families,” says community marketing specialist Carlin Ellis, who’s based in Wilmington. Accordingly, Ellis has adopted a shelf at a local food pantry and keeps it stocked for families in need. “I was able to do that from afar and connect it back to our team,” she explains.

Expanding the circle

When Pratt & Whitney operations manager Michelle Walker relocated from the company’s headquarters in Hartford, Conn., to Asheville in October, she was determined to create the kind of onboarding process for new hires that she would have liked to have had in the various positions she’s held during her 23 years with the firm.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Twenty Quility employees came together Sept. 29 to help out with construction at the BeLoved Village. “We at BeLoved believe that community is the solution to everything,” says Amy Cantrell. Photo courtesy of Quility

As she began thinking about how to do that, says Walker, “Community service ran across the paper.” Although the company had organized both volunteering and fundraising opportunities for its salaried staff in Connecticut, she and quality operations manager David Ray wanted to establish comparable options for the Asheville facility’s hourly employees.

Each of the three onboarding weeks they’ve organized thus far has concluded with a community service project. One time, new hires helped MANNA FoodBank sort donated food. And on two occasions, most recently Nov. 3, they spent a day at the Veterans Healing Farm.

“They’ve helped us a lot with this year’s needs,” Megan Landreth, the nonprofit’s farm administrator, told Xpress via email. “They helped paint our deck, prepared our large field for planting, laid gravel in our rose garden and fire pit.”

For Ray, who started out at Pratt & Whitney as an hourly employee 17 years ago, this work is personal. Having been on the receiving end of community support when he experienced a major health emergency, he makes it a point to bring his family to scheduled community service days whenever he can and has returned to the farm on his own time as well.

“It would be fantastic if this just becomes part of how they live their lives,” says Walker. “If they think, ‘Wow, I could get my family to come and volunteer on a Saturday at MANNA FoodBank or at a festival.’ We want to instill in our people that this is how we do business.”

Since Ray arrived in Asheville in the summer of 2021, he’s helped organize service projects for various local organizations, including Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, Habitat for Humanity, Eliada and Asheville GreenWorks. On Nov. 23, his team will partner with Eblen Charities on the nonprofit’s Thanksgiving meal giveaway.

These opportunities, notes Walker, help team members get to know one another better and create a sense of teamwork that carries over to the factory floor. And Ray says that Pratt & Whitney’s community involvement has made the company more attractive to job applicants. “It’s definitely mentioned during the interview process, as people love the commitment we show and want to be a part of it.”

A growing trend

Local nonprofit leaders say they’re seeing more companies prioritize volunteering and service projects rather than just giving money. They’re also seeking long-term relationships with specific organizations rather than just one-off collaborations.

“I love that people are taking the time to create community over a series of months,” says Cantrell, adding, “I often call volunteers that persistent drip that creates a sea change.” East Fork Pottery, for example, recently partnered with BeLoved for an entire quarter. Similarly, Walker and Ray are hoping to set up ongoing partnerships with Asheville GreenWorks and MANNA as part of their orientation for new hires.

Gardner, meanwhile, says some companies that partner with Bounty & Soul not only pay their employees for a certain amount of community service time but even make a donation corresponding to the value of those hours. “It’s been inspiring to see this kind of corporate philanthropy model taking shape — for-profits and nonprofits teaming up to understand each other’s work and how they can support it,” she says.

Zeh agrees, noting that she serves on the boards of some local nonprofits as a way of “helping them find other corporations like ours to partner with.” To fully realize the potential of this approach, Zeh maintains, “We need other companies to jump on board.”


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About Sara Murphy
Sara Murphy lives in Leicester. Her work has appeared in 100 Days in Appalachia, Facing South, Polygon, and Lifehacker.

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