First Person: Commentary from Dave Squire, president of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of the Northwest

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Friday, September 01, 2006

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A new generation of hope

New startup companies get it right with early philanthropic goals.

By Dave Squire

Every company I’ve ever worked at had commitment to the community somewhere in its mission statement — but it wasn’t supposed to be taken too seriously. It took me about 20 years to figure that out. When I volunteered in the community, the response was, “That’s great; we fully support you.” Silently, they added, “As long as it doesn’t take any time away from work or cost money. But please feel free to use the company name.”

But a new generation of entrepreneurs is changing that. As president of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of the Northwest, I’ve been blown away by the commitment of these new philanthropists. They are the leaders and employees of entrepreneurial startup companies who believe that getting involved with the community early on is a vital part of their corporate strategy.

These entrepreneurs actually take action at a time when most companies would claim to be too poor or too busy to even consider the idea of giving back to the community.

These companies also lead by example by encouraging and demonstrating volunteerism. They have paid time-off policies for employee volunteers, corporate volunteer councils, matching giving programs, and HR policies that encourage and reward community involvement. And they have executives who are directly involved.

One such company is Clarity Visual Systems, a tech company in Wilsonville, acquired by Planar systems in July. Paul Gulick, the CEO and founder, is involved in Clarity’s community involvement program and chairs its Give Back to the Community committee. Clarity has a strategic focus for involvement, a matching gift program, time off for volunteerism, and includes all of this in its recruiting and promotional materials. Clarity is a fairly mature startup, but some companies have jumped into our community involvement programs before they’ve even completed our membership process (which includes granting future stock options for a company donor-directed fund).

My son works at another one of our member companies, Sabrix, which actively promotes volunteerism and has one day per quarter of paid time off for employees who volunteer. He’s in a high-pressure job with few breaks in the grind. What better way to relax than to nail siding with a company executive or dress up like a storm trooper to collect food for the Oregon Food Bank? He gets to do good works with people that he might not even see on the job and it’s in an atmosphere where the normal work hierarchies don’t exist. I think it also gives him a sense of pride in being a member of a company and team of people who care about the community.

I believe the reasons for this trend are a new sense of values in companies and a realization that having and living these values is good business. Also, nonprofits face declining support from federal and state governments while demand for services is expanding. They desperately need new sources of support, both financial and operational. They need access to the entrepreneurial talent that has driven the innovation in productivity and effectiveness in the private sector.

And there’s a workforce problem looming. Baby boomers are retiring and severe shortages of skilled workers are predicted. Companies are going to need every advantage they can muster to attract and retain skilled employees. There is a triple win for companies with a strong community involvement program. First, they attract the right kind of employee. Second, community involvement programs create leadership and team building opportunities for employees. And third, they create stronger communities that in turn nourish the companies.

The events that have given me the highest highs in my career are those that involved working on a team with shared values and a shared commitment to some really tough objective: launching awesome new products in fiercely competitive markets, developing an innovative school-to-work program for high school students, or just climbing to the top of Mount Hood. A money incentive will get you somewhere in the short term, but employees with values and loyalty and passion for new visions of the future will be attracted to companies that be-lieve in community.

Like this new generation of entrepreneurs, I want to work in a place that lets me use my talents to create success for the business and the community. I’m inspired by the number of new companies that get it: Companies and communities must grow together.

Dave Squire is president of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of the Northwest in Portland and managing partner of the Tygh Valley Group.

 

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