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The cause and the challenge: Choosing the right charity

Closely tying giving to an outfit's goods or services does not necessarily limit options. It just requires some creativity.

Participants shoot hoops and cheer at the 16th Annual Zarwin Baum March Madness Event at the Crystal Tea Room in March 2018.
Participants shoot hoops and cheer at the 16th Annual Zarwin Baum March Madness Event at the Crystal Tea Room in March 2018.Read moreHandout

No one remembers exactly who came up with the idea, but it made perfect sense.

Spirit Halloween, the Egg Harbor Township-based company that runs those pop-up stores for all things Halloween, would throw bashes with oodles of costume giveaways for children confined to hospitals and unable to trick or treat.

"We're selling Halloween to families and kids, and kids in hospitals can't go out to trick or treat," explained Rick Tereo, director of corporate administration for Spencer Spirit Holdings and chairman of the Spirit of Children Committee.

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"You need to align your philanthropy with what you do," he added. "I can't imagine anything else we would support."

That appears to be the guiding principle for many workplaces looking for a charitable cause that's the right fit for them. Sometimes the tie-in is closely connected to the company's products or services — Halloween stores and trick-or-treat parties for hospitalized kids. Other times, the reason requires a little creative explanation. Consider a cemetery that fund-raises for an art center. (More on that later.) Still others may choose to support a good cause because of a suggestion from employees or company leadership.

Regardless of the reasoning behind the choice of charitable cause, "your heart has to be in it," Toreo said. "You have to engage 100 percent. There has to be a passion."

Certainly, that has been Spirit Halloween's approach. Since it partnered with 11 hospitals in 2006, its program has grown to 140 hospitals, and this Halloween, the company plans to run 92 parties across the United States and in Canada and donate 80,000 pieces of merchandise, Tereo said.

In addition to pumpkin painting and costumes of princesses, superheroes and more for the taking, the business raises money from customer donations at its stores. Last year, $8.3 million was collected, most of which was awarded as grants to hospital child life departments, which offer therapeutic and emotional support to children and families, he said. Philadelphia's Shriners Hospital for Children, for one, has received more than $380,000 since 2009, about $52,000 of it just last year. Spirit of Children will be recognized for its financial contributions during the Inquirer Corporate Philanthropy Conference and Awards event Monday at the Crystal Tea Room.

"The [Halloween] party is fun, but it's over and done," Toreo said. "The cash is more important. The monetary donations support child life needs and services at the hospital all year long."

Closely tying giving to an outfit's goods or services does not necessarily limit options. It just requires some creativity.

At first glance, the 187-acre West Laurel Hill Cemetery & Funeral Home in Bala Cynwyd appears to support a hodgepodge of local nonprofits to the tune of $90,000 a year in donations and partnership support. Look closer, though, and each has a tie-in to the cemetery.

Some are obvious. West Laurel Hill supports restoration work at Gladwyne Jewish Memorial Cemetery, for example.

Others, not so much. "Some of them, you have to think a little bit outside of the box," said Deborah Cassidy, director of sales and marketing for the cemetery.

Take the Wayne Art Center. West Laurel Hill, also being recognized for its financial contributions at the Corporate Philanthropy event, sponsors the art center's Plein Air Festival, a national juried exhibition, with a murder-mystery dinner and theater event.

"The reason it's a good fit," Cassidy said, "is because you come into our cemetery and the architecture and beauty here fall under the whole art world." West Laurel Hill, one year shy of its 150th anniversary, is known for its historic and elaborate grave markers of prominent families and its impressive mausoleums.

Or the Independent Business Alliance, the Philadelphia-area's LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Cassidy noted that at one time, gay people were not allowed to plan funerals for their partners because they were not legally married. "We wanted to help them make a difference in Harrisburg or Washington with respect to gay marriage," she said.

Or the Lower Merion Conservancy and the Sustainable Business Network. West Laurel Hill has a natural burial meadow and sustainability initiatives. And so on.

Of course, the cemetery has to carefully consider its partnerships, perhaps more than most, given its solemn purpose.

"We're very, very careful about the events we're going to have here," Cassidy said. "We make sure it's not morbid. We wouldn't do vampires or ghost hunters."

The murder-mystery event, she noted, is perhaps the "edgiest" activity on the grounds. "We hold it in the conservatory," she said, "not on the graves."

Ultimately, it's about participating in the community, being a good neighbor, Cassidy said. "We want families we serve and community members to know we're not just here when a death has occurred," she said.

For law firm Zarwin Baum DeVito Kaplan Schaer Toddy, based in Philadelphia, a business networking extravaganza morphed into a business networking plus charity extravaganza that benefits Philabundance, the region's largest hunger-relief organization.

The obvious philanthropic effort for a law firm would seem to be pro-bono legal services. Instead, Zarwin Baum, another award recipient at the Corporate Philanthropy event, took a different approach.

"There are a lot of law firms that do charitable things in the legal community," said Mitchell Kaplan, managing shareholder at the firm. "We want to spread it out beyond that. Hunger is such a pervasive problem in our region. So we recognize that this [Philabundance] is a charity that does so many good things for so many people."

Back in 2003, Zarwin Baum, along with three other companies, organized a client-appreciation event called March Madness that was tied to the NCAA championship basketball tournament. It proved a successful networking opportunity. Eventually, the law firm hosted it itself and added a charity component.

"We realized we got so many people together in one place that it was a good thing to turn it into a charity event," Kaplan said.

At the time, one of the firm's attorneys was on Philabundance's board.

So far, Zarwin Baum has raised about $300,000 for the food pantry through the silent auction at the event.

This year, the invitation-only event was held at Philadelphia's Crystal Tea Room and attracted more than 2,500 guests. Big-screen TVs showcased the college basketball games for nine hours while folks networked, imbibed whiskey and other potent potables, and enjoyed delicacies from Del Frisco's, Dim Sum Garden, and Revolution Taco, among others, while bidding on items that raised tens of thousands.

"It's a lot of work to pull this together," Kaplan allowed. "I'm very, very proud of what we've done. It's a matter of choosing the charity that works for you and your employees."