At Alex. Brown, giving is part of corporate culture


This is not a column to glorify any one individual or company. But, there are things happening out there in the corporate world -- good things -- that tend to go unnoted.

Many years ago, United Way of America applied a well-known successful fund-raising technique to its unique requirements. It formed the Alexis de Tocqueville Society, an exclusive club of donors who contribute $10,000 or more a year to their local United Way.

Today, 152 local United Ways have de Tocqueville Societies. In 1992, 5,814 high-income donors gave $92 million.

The Society is named after the 18th century French sociologist and writer who visited the United States and came away fundamentally impressed by its volunteer spirit.

Many corporate leaders throughout the nation expect that their high-salaried employees will give something back to their communities, both in time and financial assistance.

In some cases, that expectation means that above a specified salary level, the executive will become a de Tocqueville Society member.

For a year now, I've heard local rumors that a Baltimore company, Alex. Brown & Sons Inc., was one of the leading corporations in de Tocqueville Society memberships, ranking near some well-known groups such as Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. in Louisville, Ky., with an amazing 20 memberships.

I simply wasn't prepared for what I found, nor the way I had to ferret out the information.

Alex. Brown -- are you ready for this Baltimore? -- has 41 de Tocqueville members in its upper-echelon executive corps!

That makes it the top-ranked company in America, with more than twice as many memberships as any other company.

In part to recognize that achievement, Chief Executive Officer A. B. "Buzzy" Krongard was given the Fleur de Lis award by United Way of America at its recent annual meeting.

"As an investment company, sometimes we make a lot of money," the straight-talking Krongard told me. "As far as I'm concerned, we have an obligation to give back to the community."

At Alex. Brown, Krongard expects that highly paid executives will be a de Tocqueville Society member.

Society membership offers an advantage to a company.

"De Tocqueville Society members can designate their gifts to particular charities," Krongard says.

"That means that a company isn't telling employees where their money ultimately goes. With United Way, people now have a choice."

As social needs increase and funding for charities becomes more competitive, many in the philanthropic community are searching for ways to increase the available pie. One obvious way is for corporations to enculturate giving as a norm.

"I think that the de Tocqueville Society is a good way to educate people to write a five-figure check," reports Krongard.

What about employees who resent being expected to give a predetermined amount set by the CEO? In Krongard's case the issue is moot.

"I don't care about being popular," he says. "Corporations aren't democracies."

Enculturating charitable work and donations is critical if, as a society, we intend to increase the size of the funding pie to meet social demands.

That means involving schools, as well as corporations and government agencies, in programs that encourage us to be charitable.

It seems to me that one way to enculturate giving is to spread the word about corporate successes such as the one happening at Alex. Brown.

How could I be unaware of the happenings there? Not until I stumbled into it, then chased down leads which lead me to the helpful staff at United Way of America in Alexandria, Va., was I able to piece together this incredible story.

Has the educational lesson of writing a five-figure check paid off? Krongard thinks so.

"It has gradually become the thing to do. People are voluntarily joining, even some who are earning below the cutoff level."

My hat is off to Alex. Brown, and every other company that encourages de Tocqueville memberships. Now let's spread the word.

Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at The Brokerage, 34 Market Place, Suite 331, Baltimore, Md. 21202 or call 783-5100

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