Harnessing Dollar Power


When Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. speaks, hundreds of non-profit organizations listen carefully.

As Baltimore has lost corporate headquarters to other cities over the years, as recessions and economic shifts have unsettled old assumptions, the corporate largess that many local groups depend on to sustain their programs have been put at risk.

But BGE remains a corporate mainstay in Baltimore and, despite layoffs and restructuring, sound and profitable. It also remains one of the area's leading sources of corporate contributions. From the ambitious endowment campaigns by the Johns Hopkins University or the annual United Way drives to the small efforts that seek to ameliorate the problems of a single neighborhood, BGE is always at or near the top of the list for corporate solicitations.

So last year when the company announced a new focus in its approach to corporate giving, the change stirred a lot of interest.

Under chairman and CEO Christian H. Poindexter, the company has decided to focus a significant portion of the $5 million or so it typically gives away each year on programs related to early-childhood development.

That's great news for many children and families in Maryland. But not all the reaction was positive. And no wonder. Focusing on one area means that less money will be available to groups with other objectives.

Even so, the decision, and the process the company went through to implement it, represents an eminently sound approach to an activity that otherwise can easily become so scattered that it has little to show for itself. BGE, for example, hands out some 1,400 different grants each year, averaging $3,000 to $4,000 each. Until this year there was no overall theme or focus, other than an intent to invest in the community and people with which the company does business.

Mr. Poindexter liked the idea of providing some focus to the company's grants, while shifting somewhat away from the large capital campaigns toward more participation in programs that deliver services to people. He also was won over to the idea that services to young children and their families could do more good than virtually any other area of endeavor.

So last month, Mr. Poindexter presided at a ceremony at South Baltimore's Maree Garnett Farring Elementary School, site of the Faree Family Learning Center, one of seven recipients of BGE's first round ofearly childhood grants. Each of the seven will receive full or partial funding in grants that will be paid over a three-year period. Altogether, the seven grants will total just over $1.1 million during the next three years.

The grants make BGE the first and only corporation in Maryland to earmark a significant portion of its corporate giving to young children.

Why children? "I felt the dollars invested there were more powerful than dollars invested later," Mr. Poindexter said last week.

Bishop Robinson, head of Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, emphasized that point in remarks at the Farring ceremony. "Let's not kid ourselves," he said. "New laws, more police, tougher sentencing and more prisons alone won't solve America's crime problem. Prevention is the key. We must invest in our youth, as early in their lives as possible."

Plenty of people have been saying that for a long time. What's new is for a corporation the size of BGE to listen -- and to make a strategic decision to do something about it in a coordinated, thoughtful way.

Yet it's easy to donate money, harder to make sure those funds make a difference. BGE wisely convened a panel of advisers to provide guidance on how best to implement their initiative.

One piece of good advice: Make sure programs can provide accountability and can demonstrate their success. Another was to fund healthy programs with a strong base of support, not those that need money simply to stay afloat.

Mr. Poindexter notes that in the past BGE had focused on programs that would attract new businesses. Now, the company wants to stress that developing human potential is another essential part of being a good corporate citizen.

Strengthening children and families helps do that -- and many would argue it should be the keystone of any effort to improve society.

But of course there are many other worthy endeavors that need and deserve help. BGE's new focus doesn't shut them out. In fact, by example, it may help steer other donors toward a clearer focus on the needs of the community -- including the need to give wisely and well.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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