Charity During COVID: Independent Agents Build on Community Emphasis

For independent agents, community involvement is a part of the job description—pandemic or not.

“Our members, agents and people in our industry are really geared to help people,” says Denise Johnson, president and CEO of Independent Insurance Agents of Oklahoma (Big I Oklahoma). “We're standing there in the middle of tragedies and we're usually the answer to it.”

That’s why, within days after the U.S. was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson got a call from former Big I Oklahoma chair Tony Caldwell with an idea: raise $50,000 for the regional food bank.

“I said ‘that’s awesome,’” Johnson says. “But I was thinking ‘$50,000 in a pandemic?’ We put out a notice, put it on social media—and within three days we had raised $50,000.”

Ultimately, the Big I Oklahoma vaulted over their original goal and raised $95,000 for the food bank. The fundraising process included outreach with videos, messages over email and social media. Johnson also reached out to each donor with a personal note of thanks and to check in on their wellbeing during the pandemic. “Some of it was big donations, but a lot was $100 here or $20 there,” she says. “People were kind, giving and supporting. It was amazing.”

“In the middle of something difficult and dark, I underestimated the response I was going to get from members,” Johnson continues. “When people believe in a cause, they become very passionate about it.”

With high levels of community involvement even before the coronavirus pandemic, many independent insurance agents are the first to meet their community’s needs caused by a crisis.

Ben Rathbun, partner and personal and commercial producer at The Rathbun Agency in Lansing, Michigan, describes how the agency’s connections to local businesses and nonprofits create closer alignment.

“Agents have a really unique opportunity to be able to give back to the community because our business is certainly very relationship-focused,” he says. “There’s few other professions in which you’re frequently talking to hundreds or thousands of people in the local community.”

From buying gift cards for employees from local businesses—many of whom are clients—to agency leaders involved in local clubs and organizations donating to laid-off hotel workers, “we're making an extra effort to make sure that we support all of our customers,” Rathbun says.

The Rathbun Agency is building on a strong foundation of charitable involvement. About five years ago, Rathbun started an initiative he calls Quotes for a Cause, in which the agency picks a different nonprofit organization each month to donate $5 per quote, whether or not the quote leads to a purchase.

“We’ve highlighted over 60 local charities,” he says. “And it’s created a niche for us to insure many small local nonprofits. After six years as an agent, all I write is referral business and a lot of that is because I threw myself out there and immersed myself in the community.”

Rathbun’s passion for helping his community continues through his work with the Michigan Young Agents and its involvement with the nonprofit organization Ele’s Place, a support group for children who have lost a loved one. His connection to Ele’s Place reaches back to his father previously serving on their community board and a high school friend who joined a peer group after losing her father to suicide.

“When I first graduated, I was looking for ways to get involved with the community and I started volunteering as a support group facilitator,” he says. “Every Wednesday, I facilitate a group for pre-K kids. There’s way more laughter than tears because these kids actually feel like they can express themselves to this group after their dad or brother has died and none of their other friends are experiencing the same thing.”

When Rathbun became chair of the Michigan Young Agents, he chose Ele’s Place as the charitable organization the committee would support in 2020—and this year’s fundraising event is a virtual 5K.

“We’ve actually been planning the virtual 5K for eight months,” Rathbun says. “It had nothing to do with the coronavirus. It was a way that people all over the state could give back. Ultimately, it’s brought many more people to hear about the cause who otherwise wouldn’t have.”

The Ele’s Place Virtual 5K is scheduled June 1-5. Registrants sign up for $30 to receive a hat and commit to walking or running 7,500 steps during the week.

With the coronavirus pandemic, “a lot of agency owners see this as a way to have a team-building event and support charity at the same time, and a way to get outside with all of us going stir-crazy at home,” Rathbun says.

When it comes to agents beginning to seek out more opportunities to get involved in their local community, Rathbun emphasizes there are more ways to give than through money. “If you don't have money, you have time. When I started out as a young agent, I didn't have a lot of money. I threw myself into the community. At the end of the day when people make a purchasing decision, they want to talk to someone they can build a relationship with who gives back to the community.”

“Part of being in your community is that you are the trusted choice,” Johnson adds.  “If someone says the word ‘insurance’ in their small town in rural Oklahoma, I want them to think of their local independent agent that they know has an answer for their needs. You have to stand there and be involved.”

AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.

The Big “I” Young Agents Committee is hosting the third annual GIVE Movement June 1-8. The Big “I” will continue to highlight state and member initiatives on social media under #TCagentsGIVE and our #19ActsofKindness movement.