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Sowing seeds, Part 1

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Since it was formed three years ago, Integra Staffing & Search in Charlotte has earmarked 10 percent of its net profits for charitable giving.

But picking charities to support has proven to be a tough job, based mainly on personal networking, says Robert Fish, the firm’s chief operating officer.

That has changed, though, thanks to SEED Charlotte, a program created by the Charlotte Business Journal and Foundation for the Carolinas to pool donations from small businesses and involve them in philanthropy.

Involvement in the program has helped Integra focus its giving and make it more effective, Fish says.

“Now, we can match expertise with the money,” he says.

Launched a year ago, SEED Charlotte teamed 12 small firms with two charities they selected and supported with grants and volunteering.

The effort gave a big boost to the two charities, and helped the firms and their executives and employees better understand local needs and how to support them, participants say.

How it worked

The fund last year enlisted the 12 small firms, each of which agreed to donate $1,000, with the Charlotte Business Journal and Foundation for the Carolinas together matching those donations, dollar for dollar.

The firms’ top executives enrolled in classes designed to help them better understand community needs and the grantmaking process.

The firms also were divided into two teams, each of which was responsible for creating a grantmaking mission and application form, soliciting and screening grant proposals, making site visits and awarding grants from the $24,000 pool.

Each firm also agreed to send employees to volunteer at the charities that received grants, with the number of volunteer hours for each firm based on the number of its employees.

Firms could opt to serve on either team, one of which was asked to focus on youth education, the other on workforce development.

Boosting teens

After receiving eight applications and visiting four of the applicants, the youth-education team gave a $12,000 grant to the Freedom Regional Library in West Charlotte for its Enterprising Teens program.

The program, which serves mainly low-income, African-American students at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology High School, is designed to introduce them to business opportunities and provide them with entrepreneurial training, says Pamela McCarter, information education coordinator for the library.

In two 12-week semesters, 22 students met with business leaders, many of them from the local community.

The students also learned “soft skills,” such as how to write a resume and prepare for a job interview, and wrote business plans, with volunteers contributing 120 hours of their time.

Three of the students already have turned their plans into two working businesses, one focused on repairing computers, the other on teaching people to play keyboards and read music.

“What made it really great for the kids was that these were small business people,” McCarter says, “people they could relate to.”


Other stories in series: 

Part 2:  Small firms make a difference by working together.

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