Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Management

Cover Story: Charity Works

The insurance industry's power to change lives through its philanthropy must no longer go unrecognized. It's time to elevate the conversation about the insurance business’ charitable work and those it touches.

Everyone who gets involved on behalf of a charitable organization has that one story in which their efforts were brought into sharp, human focus—that transformative moment in which they saw a life changed, even if just for a little while.

Kim Saccaro remembers hers. It involves a little boy and a dozen books.

An event hosted at the Harold Washington Library Center, the main branch of Chicago's Public Library, saw nearly 300 kids between the ages of 3 and 5 bussed in to take part in sessions tied to the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation's “Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day” initiative, a partnership with Sesame Workshop that provides tools for early literacy development. Some 300 volunteers representing various companies in the business of property & casualty insurance were on hand, paired up with the children for activity sessions designed to foster, among other things, a love of reading.

One of the children, says Saccaro, executive director of the IICF's Midwest Division, was on his way out with his industry-volunteer “buddy” when he reached the last station of the day—a stop at the mobile unit of Bernie's Book Bank, a local charity that provides free books to schools and other organizations that serve large populations of at-risk children. Upon leaving the library, each child was given a dozen books to take home.

“There was one little boy in particular,” Saccaro recalls. “He said, ‘Thank you, when do I have to bring them back?’

“You don't,” she and the other volunteers told him. “Those are for you.”

“All of them? For me. Just for me?”

“Just for you,” they said.

“He had the hugest smile on his face, he was jumping up and down,” says Saccaro, savoring the emotional impact of that moment. “It was representational of how many of the kids reacted. I was overwhelmed, to be honest, and immediately proud we were doing this for so many kids in our community. It was one child, at one event, in one city, and it just showed what this program can do—that the industry can come together on something like this.”

It is this spirit of “coming together” that defines the Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation, which is positioned as the P&C insurance business’ focal point for a great deal of its collective philanthropy. Its member companies, which spend the entire year competing for business, come together in a united effort to benefit local charities via its Northeast, Texas/Southeast, Midwest and Western divisions, and also assist others on a national scale—most recently, by spearheading its literacy effort in 2013 through a three-year partnership with the minds behind “Sesame Street.” The initiative provides Sesame-themed learning tools for both children and their guardians, free of charge.

When acting on IICF business, all the standard demarcations drawn among executives at various insurers vanish in the spirit of goodwill. Saccaro recalls looking around the table during the Midwest Division's inaugural meeting in May 2011 in a boardroom at Willis Tower and being amazed by what she saw: “So many people in the room who knew each other as obvious competitors, senior executives, all were willing to sit down and take a leap of faith on something brand new and work together for something better.”

“That's rewarding,” she adds. “There's no better word for it than that.”

An Industry of Giving

The IICF's role, according to its CEO, Bill Ross, is to provide companies with the opportunity to elevate the image of the P&C insurance industry by promoting its efforts that might not be reported otherwise, such as volunteering in schools as mentors, aiding the homeless or providing food distribution in underserved areas following a disaster. The IICF, as he explains it, has three primary goals: to bestow grants (such as the nationwide literacy initiative); to support regional volunteer opportunities; and to utilize the industry's leadership expertise.

Jillian Walsh, community investment director for Zurich North America, left; Insurance Industry Charitable Foundation CEO Bill Ross; and Marlene Ibsen, vice president of community relations & CEO and president of the Travelers Foundation.

Additionally, during its annual eight-day “Week of Giving” in October, IICF member companies industrywide volunteer their time in community service. This year, more than 5,000 volunteers logged 20,000 hours helping local charities throughout the U.S.

“Our effort is focused on highlighting the work that the insurance industry's members do, and acknowledge its work as a united industry,” says Ross. “We can highlight bringing those efforts together, and leverage our collective strength.”

In the case of the “Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day” project, he explains, the IICF's national board identified a common goal: closing America's early childhood literacy gap, something that had likewise been cited by the Pew Foundation as an essential element for American competitiveness in a global economy. “It struck us as a great opportunity to move the needle on a social need.”

“The motivation is simple: When parents and caregivers introduce children to reading and writing at an early age, they experience greater success in school and later in life,” says Eden Kratchman, vice president of ACE Global Corporate Giving and the chair of the IICF's Steering Committee. The ACE Charitable Foundation has been involved with the early literacy initiative from the beginning, she adds, when the IICF developed a national grant platform to fund the program's creation. “Alarmingly, U.S. students are falling behind other countries in literacy skills, and within the U.S., children in underserved communities are falling even farther behind,” she adds.

An evaluation study by research and development firm PlayScience reported in May that parents’ exposure to the “Every Day is a Reading and Writing Day” website and materials enhanced their interest and confidence in talking, reading and writing with their children, and greatly extended the amount of time spent reading together. For Spanish-speaking participants, the impact was even greater: They reported that the time they spent in talking, reading and writing activities with their kids had increased significantly, particularly when it came to writing-focused behaviors.

Why is this important to those who work in the business of insurance? Because it's good news for the P&C industry as a whole when a united charitable effort can yield real results and a positive story. In many instances pertaining to the industry's charitable efforts, that's not always the case. Those stories of the way its philanthropy affects lives in a measurable way all too frequently go unshared or unheard outside company walls.

If they saw the numbers, few could accuse the P&C insurance industry of being stingy when it comes to charity. A study two years ago by McKinsey and Co. analyzing the P&C insurance business’ charitable giving showed that the industry gave more than $500 million to those in need in 2010, but suggested that much more work remained to be done to increase the impact of that philanthropy.

Many insurance executives told McKinsey and Co. they believe the industry's charitable efforts are underappreciated and do not receive the appropriate recognition. It should be noted that this is a common sentiment among execs at two-thirds of companies across all industries, who feel the same about the public response to their charity work.

McKinsey and Co. said the insurance industry could maximize its charitable work by more closely aligning its social and business goals; identifying and committing to a limited number of causes that leverage its unique skills; and managing its charitable giving like any other major business investment—through continued diligence and measured goals. According to the report, nearly half of all P&C insurers said they did not systematically measure the performance of their charitable efforts.

“The IICF is a great way of raising our profile” as an industry, says Hank Watkins, president of Lloyd's North America and a member of the IICF Northeast Division's executive committee. “Our industry has not done a good job of presenting ourselves as favorably as other industries have, but through the IICF's efforts we are doing a much better job than ever before.

“I think historically, we weren't as proud as we might have been,” he adds. “The general public perceived insurance as the industry you gave money to because you have to buy their products. We weren't recognized as helpful unless there was a major disaster. But because of the IICF and organizations in our industry doing similar good work, we’re being perceived more favorably as people who want to give back to our communities every day.”

Tales of Compassion

The most important thing about charity, however, isn't about numbers. It's about people—people who need help, and an industry that recognizes that need and does something about it. Once that is accomplished, widely sharing those stories is a critical part of the process that can be overlooked.

Stories like one shared by Sarah Pang, senior vice president of corporate communications at CNA insurance, one of the IICF's foundation partners. She relates how one child participating in a workshop teaching financial skills—hosted by Operation HOPE, which provides financial-literacy empowerment for the working poor, the underserved and struggling middle class—left a lasting impression on her.

Operation HOPE reps visit schools, reaching out to students as young as 4th graders to teach them how to manage their money—or to provide, as she puts it, “an empowering exercise in making choices in your life.” During one such classroom session that she witnessed two years ago, a group of youngsters were asked, “If you had $100, what would you do with it?”

At first, Pang says, many kids responded that they’d spend it toward an Xbox, an iPad or other excesses. By the lesson's end, however, when asked the same question, one little boy said, “I would save it to buy a car for my mom, because she has to take three buses to work and she leaves in the dark.”

“All the kids had a very different story to tell at the end of the session, one that was far more meaningful,” she says. “It's an incredible thing to be a part of that.”

At IICF foundation partner Travelers, Marlene Ibsen has another story to tell. As vice president, community relations, and president and CEO of the Travelers Foundation (which provides funding and support for education, community development and arts & culture in Saint Paul, Minn., Hartford, Conn., and other regions), she was able to witness a young single mom in Bay St. Louis, Miss., put a roof over her family's heads as a result of the insurer's partnership with Habitat for Humanity.

Ibsen tells of how Heather Adams and her son were living in a converted barn on her aunt's property when Katrina struck nine years ago. They tried to ride out the storm, but fast-rising floodwaters forced them to flee straight into hurricane-force winds that Adams says very nearly tore her baby boy from her arms.

With the help of Travelers, Habitat for Humanity and the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), in September 2013 Adams and her two children moved into a new home built to fortified standards that will better protect them from future storms. The house is one of eight pilot Habitat for Humanity builds in Alabama and Mississippi made possible by grants provided by the Travelers Foundation. The program has since expanded to New York and Connecticut.

“The simple idea that they could have their own home was almost magical to her,” says Ibsen. “But the idea that she was getting not just a home but a fortified home was just amazing.”

Jillian Walsh, community investment director for Zurich North America, relates how Zurich, yet another of the IICF's foundation partners, created an unforgettable experience for a young cancer patient named Eric.

Through its partnership with Make-a-Wish, one of the six charities with which it works (the American Cancer Society, the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the United Way and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital are its additional core charities), Zurich invited the 11-year-old boy and his family to visit its offices in June during its Global Community Week, during which its employees volunteer with various community projects and charities in 43 countries worldwide.

When Eric, his sisters Karen and Audrey—his twin—and his parents visited Zurich's offices in Schamburg, Ill., employees spared no effort in making every moment a memorable one. The boy, who had recently completed another exhausting round of treatments and would soon embark on an African safari thanks to Make-a-Wish, was greeted by nearly 400 applauding employees; its corporate choir launched into renditions of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and other safari-themed numbers.

The family then boarded a specially decorated “plane”—an elevator—manned by a “pilot” and “flight attendant” who guided Eric on an extensive journey through six themed floors of activities all completely catered to his interests, including a “Minecraft” floor of puzzles to solve; a “concert” floor where the young Led Zeppelin fan could show off his best John Bonham licks on the drums and attendees received a T-shirt commemorating the performance; and an “Avengers”-themed floor on which the youth was enlisted to save his hero, Captain America, from Marvel villains and received a personalized video message from actor Chris Evans, offering the boy encouragement. The family received gifts from employees along the way, and the seemingly endless activities ended with a Green Bay Packer-themed lunch of Wisconsin delicacies, Eric's favorite.

“At the end of the day, he said, ‘It's crazy that you guys have put so much effort into just one kid.’ It was tremendous,” says Walsh. “There was so much employee interest in this, a lot of emotional investment.” The insurer's enthusiastic coordinating committee and several spirited floor committees, she adds, “just banded together, and helped to make it happen.”

Charity Works

The challenge is this: If the P&C insurance industry is to truly maximize its philanthropy, if it is determined to not only receive its due credit for the amazing work it does and the lives it changes but also to inspire others in the process, those efforts must receive more recognition.

That starts with sharing stories of how individuals were helped. How people were helped, often in profound ways.

The generosity exhibited by insurance professionals toward those in need, whether performed as part of a national initiative or in their own backyard, knows no end. Agents, brokers, carriers and all those who work in the P&C insurance space need a forum in which they can tell us—and you, our readers—humanized stories about how their efforts changed someone's life.

That's why this month, National Underwriter Property & Casualty will launch a special landing page on titled “Charity Works” that will serve as a destination for those stories, which will be written and contributed by those who can surely tell them best: you. Our hope is that this will provide a national platform on which the P&C industry's good work can be celebrated.

If a rising tide does indeed lift all boats, those who are seen to do good will inspire us all.

“We’re so fortunate in this country, and people can forget they have an obligation to give back,” says Pang at CNA. When it comes to considering the plight of those who need help, she notes, it's important to realize that when it comes down to it, money and other assistance are often the only things truly separating the charitable and the desperate.

“If you don't have a safety net,” she adds, “it could happen to any of us.”

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