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Even through recession, local businesses donate generously to community causes

Walt's Car Wash on Saturday held an all-day fundraiser for the Cancer Center at Rice Hospital. Cancer Center director Barb Hoeft said Walt's provided food, prizes and the accommodations. "All we had to do was bring our staff; this was awesome," she said. This business-sponsored fundraiser is a good example of the charitable giving that goes on with little fanfare or recognition. The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber honors about two dozen local businesses annually for participating in Minnesota Business Gives, ...

WILLMAR -- Last year the employees at the Conway, Deuth and Schmiesing accounting firm gave more than 3,200 hours of volunteer time to 100-plus community causes.

They volunteered for the United Way of West Central Minnesota and the Willmar Area Community Foundation. They held a food drive for the Willmar Area Food Shelf. The St. Cloud accounting team helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity. Staff at the Morris office dished up a community meal to more than 200 Morris-area residents.

All told, it amounted to at least 2 percent of the company's pretax earnings, a level that earned inclusion in Minnesota Business Gives, a statewide initiative to recognize and encourage corporate community involvement.

"It's just astonishing," said Ken Warner, president of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. "You wish you could sing the praises every day because there's a lot of giving going on."

Even as businesses feel increasing pressure to operate as lean as possible, "they're still at the table," he said.

Businesses are significant -- and sometimes under-recognized -- contributors to charitable giving and volunteering. When the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce carried out a survey in 2002 of 600 businesses across the state, it found these companies donated thousands of dollars' worth of products, services and cash each year.

The smallest companies, those with 20 or fewer employees, gave a median of $701. The median for companies with 100 to 499 employees was $8,750. Mid-size companies donated a median of $1,000 a year in services and products. Moreover, 75 percent or better of what these companies gave remained within their community.

Minnesota Business Gives is modeled after a program by the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce to recognize businesses for giving and to help them develop their own community involvement programs.

When the program, which is managed by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, went statewide seven years ago, the chambers of commerce in Willmar and Faribault were the first two to join.

There are now 23 chambers of commerce that participate and more than 240 businesses that have been recognized for giving the value of at least 2 percent of their pretax earnings. The Willmar Lakes Area Chamber honors about two dozen local businesses annually for participating in Minnesota Business Gives.

This number could be higher, but Warner said he's learned that most businesses don't seek recognition for their community involvement. "They're humble people."

Minnesota Business Gives has been a non-flashy way to single them out for what they do, he said. "You see a lot of the giving that businesses do, not only financially but as volunteers. They're always willing to provide people to help benefit the community. ... They face the challenge every day of trying to figure out who they give to and who they don't."

Rick Conway, one of the senior partners in Conway, Deuth and Schmiesing, said giving and volunteering are simply part of the firm's philosophy.

"We do strongly encourage volunteerism here -- always have and always will," he said.

Lake Region Bank has participated in Minnesota Business Gives each year since the start.

"I just label it as a no-brainer," said Clark Vollan, bank president. "I don't know that we attract new customers because of it, but that's not why we do it. We're local. What's done here stays here. It's just our way of giving back to our communities and our clients."

Warner also sees it as a reinforcement of the mutual relationship between local businesses and their customers.

"It's another reason to buy local because those are the same people supporting the community. It adds value to the quality of life that we've all become accustomed to," he said. "There could always be more education on the importance of supporting each other."

The recession has prompted many nonprofits to rely more than ever on businesses for volunteers and financial support. In turn, many businesses are starting to adopt formal processes for how they evaluate requests for giving.

Vollan has seen many more requests to support local causes. "There's not a day, week, month, that goes by that we're not asked," he said. "It is a challenge for us."

Still, when the dollar value of the bank's community contributions is added up each year, "it's astounding," he said. "I'm glad when I see the numbers. It just reinforces the need that's out there."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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