Why charitable giving is important to businesses

Richard Thomas CA is not very interested in cricket.

When he’s not at work, you’re far more likely to find the managing director of Jeffrey Thomas & Partners (JTP) in Melbourne at a singing lesson or performing in musical theatre productions than batting in whites.

However, that hasn’t stopped him and his firm from supporting the Melbourne-based organisation Cricket Without Borders (CWOB), which provides opportunities for young women through sport.

In part it’s a nod of recognition towards his father Jeffrey, who founded the firm 35 years ago, and who is passionate about and still actively involved with cricket.

It’s also part of maintaining a balanced and rewarding life outside of work – of stimulating both left and right sides of the brain, of setting an example for his staff and children, of engaging with meaningful community causes and inspiring people. And, importantly, he understands the benefits to him personally, and to the business, of doing so.

JTP’s sponsorship of CWOB provides a revealing insight into the firm’s, and Thomas’s, approach to philanthropic support. He became treasurer and a board member of CWOB after the founder, Clare Cannon, a long-time client and friend, invited him to play a part.

Having supported Cannon in establishing the organisation, Thomas knew the key players were good people and could see the value in what they were achieving.

“I like the fact that it is breaking down a few of the barriers and provides a different way to nurture the next champion,” says Thomas.

“The second thing I love is in the international side of it.”

As well as helping by running CWOB’s accounts, JTP’s three-year cash sponsorship subsidises annual cricket tours for young women. Over the past few years these tours have taken them right across the Asia-Pacific region to Fiji, Indonesia and Japan.

In July, they visited Samoa to play practice matches against the national women’s teams of Japan, Samoa and Papua New Guinea, who were competing for the honour of going on to the global qualifiers for the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017.

The highlight of the tour for most of the CWOB squad was running a cricket skills clinic at the Divine Mercy School high in the hills above Apia, where they also gave out merchandise from Cricket Australia and Cricket Victoria. Teachers at the school said that it would have been the highlight of their entire year for many of the children.

Development opportunities

Through CWOB, the opportunity to develop life and leadership skills is emphasised as much as cricketing development.

Thinking back to the cricket tours that his dad talked about over the years, Thomas realised they were only 50 per cent about playing cricket and 50 per cent about networking, business and life opportunities.

He thinks there hasn’t been as much opportunity for girls and women to do the same and, with his dad, sees it as important to redress that balance.

“I’d like to think the girls that we support would be able to look back and say that they had a good time but they also made lifelong connections, international connections – that both parties can help each other through life,” says Thomas. “That’s important I think, that’s what sport does for people.”

…roll your sleeves up as well as giving the money

Thomas has also invited CWOB players interested in accounting or business studies to draw on him and JTP for mentoring and work opportunities. For Sophia Field, who did some work at JTP in 2014, the chance to build on her Diploma in Business Administration was not the only benefit; it also helped her to raise the funds she needed to cover the costs of participating in the Japan tour.

Business and personal benefits

There is a social benefit in working with CWOB, Thomas says. Like when he joined a training camp at Dunkeld a couple of years ago and took his young daughters along with him. He ended up serenading the players and supporters around the campfire at the Dunkeld Caravan Park one crisp night, gaining in the process a wider audience including the officers at the police station across the road and much of the town. This has become part of the organisation’s folklore.

But he firmly believes his business reaps benefits from supporting and aligning with worthwhile community groups and causes such as CWOB. It’s about more than brand awareness, though.

“I think in business, particularly in financial services, if you’re not careful you can have a perception of being a very greedy brand,” Thomas says.

“Whereas I would like to think our brand is not that. For want of a better word, we’re philanthropic – or community-minded. And therefore we’re able to attract good people into the organisation – good staff and good clients.”

The philanthropic approach is an attribute he is keen to foster within the firm. One of JTP’s policies is that all staff may take one paid day each year to give time to charity. Many of his young staff members – he finds the younger generation “extremely philanthropic in their style” and “very aware of targeted giving” – are very keen to get involved with the annual May Day lunch that the firm sponsors.

Now in planning for the eighth annual event in 2017, the May Day Lunch is run by a steadfast group of Thomas’s friends, the formation of which he traces back to his first job out of university when they all worked together at Coopers & Lybrand. Supporting a different small charity each year, the event has raised more than A$450,000 over the past seven years. In the past two years, the fundraising capability of the event has skyrocketed, seeing a total of A$100,000 raised at each of the 2015 and 2016 events.

It’s good exposure for the firm, he says.

“You get client exposure into these very small unique charities – like One in Five, White Lion, Cathy Freeman Foundation, Smiling Minds – and next year it will be Project New Dawn. The charities love the awareness that the lunch brings – and obviously the money.”

Protecting charities

As treasurer of the Cathy Freeman Foundation since 2008, Richard takes pride in having played a part in sustained growth, and overseeing the development of governance and administrative systems to support that.

Since initiating its first project to increase school participation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students on Palm Island, the Foundation has expanded to now working with four communities across Queensland and the Northern Territory, positively influencing the lives of over 2,000 young people.

“The Freeman Foundation is just one of the most compliant and successfully regulated charities in Australia,” says Thomas. “We constantly get hassled by the media because of the name and they want to dig up grubby stories of the Shane Warne Foundation-type issue. And they can’t find anything – clean as a whistle. It’s so well run.”

It is this rigorous approach that he will bring to his newest venture, where he will bring his love of the arts and his financial and governance expertise together as the treasurer of the School of Hard Knocks.

Thomas will play a role in creating one umbrella body that brings the Choir of Hard Knocks and the School of Hard Knocks – which provide arts, cultural and wellbeing programmes for disadvantaged people, creating possible pathways to education and employment – closer together. He’s especially looking forward to helping shape a focused and compelling story for the organisation so they will be able to attract more donors.

“It’s an exciting one – essentially about bringing the psychological and therapeutic effects of music to disadvantaged people,” says Thomas. Given his passion for music and recognition of its therapeutic benefit in his own life, the organisation could not have hoped for a better advocate and contributor.

More than money

Asked what advice would he give to other firms considering whether to provide support to charities or community causes, Thomas stresses the importance of matching cash support with time support.

“If it’s just money that’s thrown away and you don’t even care that it’s gone, that can almost be counter-intuitive because you don’t even know what you’re supporting. So, really understand what you’re supporting and roll your sleeves up as well as giving the money,” says Thomas.

It’s an approach shared by the private clients he spends his days working with – a niche he carved out for himself from the earliest days of his career. He says these high net worth individuals really want to understand what they are supporting: “They read the annual reports, they meet with the organisation, they support the organisation’s fundraising days – then they’ll give.”

He also encourages firms that are considering sponsorship and support to be sure to think strategically, or they could become overwhelmed.

“Think how it could assist and resonate back to your brand, your people, your culture and your clients. There are a lot of charities out there to support.”

This article was first published in Acuity magazine’s  December 2016 issue and online.

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