Teaching others How to Teach to Fish … an interview with Geof Brown, Vermont Country Store Head of Human Resources and Philanthropy

Even companies whose origins lie in authentic socially responsible values find their community involvement looking different today than it did decades before. Staying true to their roots, while evolving to meet modern needs is the story of The Vermont Country Store (VCS) and its successful philanthropy program. Issues of employee engagement, local community involvement and humility were all carefully considered and rewired to update VCS programs under the watchful eye of Geof Brown.

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VCS, a multi-generational family owned business, enticed Geof to seek a position where he could truly make a difference in the lives of employees and in the communities where they live and work. After a 20 plus year career in human resources and change management, primarily in the retail sector, Geof followed his creative passion by establishing an inn and event business at the Williams River House at Fox Chair Mountain Farm in Chester, Vermont. VCS, however, provided Geof the opportunity to serve as the company’s Head of Human Resource and lead their commitment to local community-focused Philanthropy.

The Vermont Country Store’s roots in Vermont go back eight generations, and family values still play a fundamental role in dictating how the Orton family maintains close ties to the community. As Geof explains, “The Orton family, along with our CEO Bill Shouldice, provides proper sponsorship to our philanthropy program around our core values: authenticity, commitment to product, commitment to employees, commitment to the community, and being sustainable financially. We leverage all of our resources — funding, product and volunteerism — to maximize the reach of our program and model our values.”

One founding value of VCS is giving back to the approximately 65 communities in which its employees live and work. ”There is a desire on the part of the Ortons to be humble in their giving – it is who they are at their core. They feel a responsibility to share their success with their communities, but do not seek publicity for their generosity,” Geof said. “They know that when our communities are thriving, so does our business. The Ortons have been ‘paying it forward’ long before it was a catch phrase. They embody the generosity of spirit and independent thinking that make Vermont a special place.”

Under the leadership of VCS Board Chair Eliot Orton and CEO Bill Shouldice, Geof and VCS’s Philanthropy Coordinator Ann Warrell, have implemented and improved the company’s philanthropic programs, so that they address contemporary community needs and employee interests. Over the past several years, VCS has started to share what is working for them outside their four walls in order to inspire other Vermont businesses to do the same.

Employee Engagement and Local Giving
Geof and Ann explored two key issues that were intimately linked — how to increase employee engagement while making more of a local impact. By using these two principles as drivers, they were able to enhance existing programs and provide new offerings, and in so doing, maximize their existing philanthropic funding, while increasing employee involvement.

Community Teams
One of VCS’s most successful programs is its Community Action Team (CAT) model, in which teams of employees lead philanthropic giving efforts.

“Eliot’s direction was to make any giving program be grass roots,” Geoff said. “He and Bill Shouldice instituted CAT teams to ensure that the majority of our funding was given through employee-centered decisions and hired an individual to coordinate their activities. Today, we bring our four CAT teams together semi-annually to share ideas on their grant-making decisions and other initiatives,” Geof said. CAT teams can also support non-profits through volunteerism. “CATs spend time helping when it’s their hands that are needed most. This flexibility helps them address real needs at a grass roots level, which is in keeping with our mandate,” Geof notes.

“With the success of the program, we kicked it up several notches to educate teams about working within guidelines and allocating resources according to established priorities. Keeping these priorities in mind, they can independently decide to fund local non-profit organizations in amounts up to $5,000,” Geof explains.

“In the past two years, we have completely maximized all available funding resources. Now we are working on a web-enabled system to more efficiently track and process grant requests. All of this furthers our focus on maintaining momentum and encouraging philanthropy within our CAT teams and with all our employees.”

Dollars for Doers
“VCS had a traditional matching donation program for many years. However, it was not being used to its fullest capacity, as the matching donation funds were never fully utilized,” Geof said. “We realized that people did not have personal funds to donate, but were volunteering all over the place.

“We came up with a program we call Dollars for Doers where we match an employee’s volunteerism with $10 per hour for each hour worked. We are always trying to think about how to do things in a more practical way, which is in keeping with our values,” Geof continues. “Volunteerism is in the spirit of our employees. This is a way we can empower them, while we serve to strengthen our community.”

Manager Contributions Program
With the success of these programs, VCS also wanted to reinvigorate its existing manager donations program to reward personal community involvement. “Under the old program, managers were able to direct a certain amount to the local charity of their choice. We upped the ante by creating a two-tiered program that rewards personal involvement. We are willing to double what managers can give if they serve on a board, do community service, or create a personal giving pledge. This gives them more of an incentive to become involved, and model community involvement to their employees, which, in turn, inspires more involvement,” Geof explained. He participates by serving on the Manchester Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

“We encourage our managers, and all employees, to recognize the more complex needs of the community. We believe our philanthropy program pushes everyone toward becoming involved in ways they never did before. These actions create experiences and knowledge that serves both the community and VCS.”

Good for Others is Good for Us — in Geof’s Words
“The intersection for VCS and philanthropy is that we seek to build employee retention by empowering all employees to volunteer, and by rewarding their efforts through our matching programs. This is something that distinguishes VCS from other larger businesses in our region, and makes people want to stay with the VCS family,” said Geof. “The Ortons’ commitment to community, and the way we are able to put those values into action, is consistent with being a sustainable company.”

The Vermont Country Store isn’t interested in fitting the definition of sustainability. Instead, they are focused on doing the right thing — for their customers, their employees, and their community. They know that keeping their values in the forefront is all the guidance they need to ensure that they will continue to be successful and able to give back for generations to come.

VCS wanted their philanthropic work to be real and practical, not just an ideal, and an important milestone was for staff and managers alike to become more engaged. By reworking their philanthropic programs, and motivating employees, VCS has been able to put their philosophy into practice. By selectively sharing and speaking out, VCS is serving as a model for other Vermont businesses, inspiring them to teach how to fish, which is a win-win situation for all.

vermontcountrystore.com

Julie Lineberger

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