By making philanthropy a bona fide part of their strategy, agencies can take their community and business impact to the next level.
“It is going to be the best way you could ever use your time—I have not yet been able to replicate that feeling in anything else I've done."
The irreplicable “it" for Danielle Shearer, vice president and general manager of the Howard Hanna Agency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is community service. Shearer is one of many independent insurance agents with a passion for serving—because it simply makes sense.
“It's really something we've already committed to in our insurance industry, which is helping people," Shearer says. “It's just an extension of that."
In fact, a 2022 report from Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance in partnership with the Big “I" found that 96% of independent agents donate to charity. However, by making philanthropy a bona fide part of their agency's strategy, agencies can take their community and business impact to the next level.
“Agents give back all the time," says Alexis Holzer, senior marketing manager, independent agent giving, Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance. “But they need to formalize that strategy. A lot of people do it because it's a multi-generational agency and it's the way their parents did it. Or maybe they're super involved, but they haven't added it to their website."
“I'm always encouraging agencies to formalize their strategy, make sure you're talking about it, make sure you're making it a line item in your marketing budget, monitor it so, as your profits grow, you can give back more," she adds.
At the 2023 Big “I" Legislative Conference, the Big “I" presented Shearer and the Howard Hanna Agency with the Trusted Choice® Dan Fulwider Award for Community Involvement for their work with the Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC). Back in 2018, the agency was identifying nonprofits with good reputations to celebrate during Customer Service Week—an international celebration of the importance of customer service and of the people who serve and support customers on a daily basis held every October—and a staff member brought up RMHC.
The nonprofit was right up the agency's alley. Howard Hanna already had a charity, the Howard Hanna Children's Free Care Fund, that provides funds through local hospitals for sick children whose families cannot afford their medical care. Also, one of the local children's hospitals that the fund partners with is connected to an RMHC house.
“What better way to celebrate Customer Service Week with our team than to give back to the community?" Shearer asks. “We ended up doing two home-cooked lunches for the families that week, and that was our first deep dive into what became a long-term relationship."
“We organized a pamper party in 2019, we've put together goodie bags, we had a cookie-decorating Valentine's Day event with the kids this year, we've done PJ drives, we've done door decorations," Shearer continues. “During COVID-19, we donated money so the families could purchase hot meals. As things pop up, or as people in the agency have an idea, or if the House tells us that something in particular would be helpful—we roll with it."
The variety of opportunities to serve the families staying at an RMHC house helps Shearer get her team involved, too. “Not everybody enjoys doing everything," she says. “Employees who weren't comfortable helping with hot meals could use their creativity for the door decorating, for instance."
Shearer notes that for her and the agency, the best approach to their community involvement incorporates flexibility. “Everything in my life is so structured. When it comes to charity, it's an outlet for me to be more carefree," she says. “Someone will be in a meeting and throw out an idea, or the charity will reach out to me with a need, and I'll just throw it out there and ask my staff if anyone has an interest in seeing it through—and there's always at least two or three."
The opposite approach best serves Meiers Lombardini Lemanski Insurance (ML&L) in East Lansing, Michigan. “We've always been involved in the community in a loose way, but as time went on, I realized that if you don't have something set up formally, then it just becomes difficult to keep up with," says Will Lemanski, owner and producer. “We set a goal for the year."
ML&L decided it wanted to donate $500 to a local charity every month. To add further structure and accountability, Lemanski and his wife, Lisa Lemanski, co-owner, insurance agent and operations manager at the agency, decided to set up an agency staff committee that picks the charities.
“It empowers your employees to be part of the process with insight and gives them a say in where the money is going," Will Lemanski says. “It's work enrichment. The committee meets every few months to plan the nonprofit contributions. We often set themes, and we've also found that in the summer months, certain nonprofits are ignored a bit, so we shift."
Benefits of Community Involvement
Whether an agency takes a fluid or structured approach, the benefits of having volunteerism and community service baked into an agency's operations are undeniable.
Altruism, not return on investment, is the main reason agencies start a philanthropy program, according to Liberty Mutual and Safeco's report, but a majority of agents also reported that their contributions brought in new business.
Liberty Mutual and Safeco's Make More Happen™ program partners with independent agents by awarding grants to nonprofits that agencies support, as well as providing social media and public relations support to help agencies spread the word with awareness campaigns. “It's a great way to build trust with your community," Holzer says. “If you're doing this but not telling anyone about it, you're giving your time, talent or money, but not telling anyone about it, you're doing a disservice to the nonprofit. You could also be helping the entire independent agent channel by showing how local agents are building a stronger community—this is important because people want to do business with people that support causes they care about."
“How do you want people in the community to view you?" Lemanski asks. “It helps build our reputation."
In fact, community service is increasingly becoming an expectation from consumers. “If you look at the rapidly changing environment of business and the challenges that we face in the future, when you can focus your attention on social responsibility in your community, the greater value you're going to have as a business," says Bill Ross, CEO, Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation (IICF). “It's almost an assumption today that a business is engaged in the community."
IICF unites the insurance industry to help communities through grants, volunteer service and leadership. Among its many volunteer initiatives is the IICF International Step Up Challenge, a four-week exercise challenge that raises funds for the IICF Children's Relief Fund to alleviate childhood hunger. IICF recently launched an individual membership program that insurance professionals can sign up for to network and to gain access to professional development and volunteer opportunities.
In addition to building trust in the larger community and meeting consumers' expectations, making charity a key piece of your agency's strategy also brings benefits to staff. “I notice a difference in the way staff interacts after completing a volunteer project together," Shearer says. “It's a different level of respect and connection."
Community service can even help alleviate the industry's ongoing pain point of filling the talent gap, points out Carla Corrado, manager of talent development, Pennsylvania Lumbermens Mutual Insurance Company (PLM).
“We all know insurance has a bad reputation in the eyes of the general public, but we're actually very charitable and community oriented," she says. “Shining a light on that aspect of the industry provides a great opportunity to engage younger workers."
Ninety-five percent of Gen Z job seekers said it's important for their work to have meaning and 71% said they would take a pay cut to do meaningful work, according to a 2021 study by Zety.
PLM is involved in several community service programs, one of which includes St. Baldrick's Foundation, a nonprofit, founded by a group of reinsurers, dedicated to researching cures for childhood cancer. “We had about 17 people here at PLM shave their heads and raise about $170,000, with donations still coming in," Corrado says. “We also participate in a softball league that has tournaments to raise money for the Philadelphia Children's Alliance, a local organization that fights child abuse."
“I speak to students regularly from all over the country for internships, and they love the fact that we make volunteering and charitable giving a big part of what we do," Corrado continues. “I tell my interns that we're going to be spending a day or two volunteering in the community, and they think it's terrific. They like that work-life balance where they can feel like they're contributing to more than just a job."
Level Up Your Agency's Community Service
Here are four ways to improve your agency's philanthropy plan:
1) Gather your stakeholders around the causes they care about. “What kind of agency are you, and how does that fit into a philanthropic effort?" Ross asks. “Understand what your employees think is valuable. What about your carriers? What's important to your clients and the community itself?"
Lemanski notes the agency often reaches out to clients for their recommendations too, “because many of them have things near and dear to their heart," he says.
Established staff involvement is also a great starting place. “We just worked with an agency whose technology director's wife, who is a kindergarten teacher, started a nonprofit to help feed kids in the community," Holzer says. “Now, every quarter, the agency volunteers there to pack food, and the Make More Happen campaign just gave them a $10,000 grant to support that work."
Ross emphasizes that before partnering with a charitable organization, agencies should do their due diligence, recommending resources such as Charity Navigator, which provides a ranking based on how well a nonprofit is being managed and investing their donations. IICF members also have access to an exclusive database of pre-vetted and reputable nonprofit organizations.
2) Include your agency staff. Reaping the rewards of teamwork building and work enrichment does mean employees have to be involved and invested. Involvement from individual staff members “can depend on where people are at in their lives, and it's not easy to get everyone involved, but when you have many different ways to get involved it does have a greater chance of fitting what they're comfortable with," Shearer says. “Don't be like 'Why aren't you volunteering?' but if someone is reluctant or not participating, try to understand what the obstacle is."
“Sometimes it's clearing up the misconception that if they don't have money to give, it's not even worth bothering about," she adds. “But I think you can find something for everybody."
Lemanski found that having employees champion community service by participating in the committee, “it's almost like an employee benefit. It endears your employees to your business because they know they're part of the process."
3) Measure your impact. “Whatever you do, measure it," Ross says. “How many nonprofits did you support? How many hours? Measuring involvement or contributions helps agencies see their impact."
4) Communicate your involvement in a genuine way. From social media to the agency blog, the trick to highlighting your agency's volunteerism in a relevant, helpful way is to “tell your story," Ross says. “It's important to know your company culture and how that fits into the community, which can guide your involvement. Telling your story helps communicate to new and ongoing followers who you are as an agency."
A big factor to build credibility and genuine commitment is social sustainability. “It can't be one shot," he explains. “You can't go out one time and say you did your thing. It needs to be an ongoing relationship."
Most importantly, it's about “exhibiting your leadership within the community," Ross adds. “It's stepping forward and operating your agency visibly."
AnneMarie McPherson Spears is IA news editor.