Creative Giving

By Hannah Wallace April 30, 2008

Nonprofits are feeling the squeeze in this tough economic climate just like area businesses. But the many businesses that are finding creative ways to continue to support the community can take comfort in a survey reported upon last fall by The Wall Street Journal. It seems that “companies with a solid link between giving and operating earnings outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 index by 3.5 percentage points over five years,” according to The WSJ. So it seems that companies that give more to charity end up being more profitable. Smart business.

All Fired Up

The Zirkelbach Construction Grill Masters—dressed sharply in white aprons with a big black and yellow Z splashed across the front—roll their mobile grill trailer throughout the region, all fired up to help raise money for numerous schools and nonprofit organizations, such as the Community Coalition on Homelessness, Junior Achievement of Sarasota County and Southeastern Guide Dogs.

As of Feb. 29, Zirkelbach’s 22 employees have donated 9,292 hours of volunteer time to the grill team since they formed it 10 years ago, says company president Craig Campbell. The Palmetto-based commercial construction company a few years ago invested $50,000 in the grill trailer, an upgrade of the original one. With four large commercial grills, deep fat fryers and running water, it’s “a pretty slick setup,” he says.

We’re not necessarily talking traditional fare—ribs, steaks, hamburgers and hot dogs—although the Zirkelbach Grill Masters sizzle that up about half the time. Depending on the tone the organization wants to set at its event, they also grill macadamia encrusted grouper, mojo yellow snapper and elk and buffalo burgers. “We’re certainly not a backyard barbeque kind of operation,” he says. “It’s much more sophisticated.”

Word of mouth (pun intended) has driven the philanthropic project. “We don’t advertise; the organizations solicit us,” says Campbell. “Over the 10 years we’ve been doing this we have developed a good reputation, and many are repeat clients; the [Manatee Chamber of Commerce] Hob Nob is a mainstay, the Police Athletic League. The company also donates grill team certificates to nonprofits to auction off. “So we end up cooking for private parties, too,” he says.

The Grill Masters have often been approached by people who want to pay for their sizzling and smoky savoir-faire. “But we’ve never charged and will never charge,” he says. “It’s our gift back to the community in which we live and work.”

Since the company was founded by Alan Zirkelbach in 1996, Campbell says it also has given cash donations of just over $600,000 to a variety of cultural and human service organizations, from the Women’s Resource Center to Manasota ARC, churches, sports teams, churches and chambers of commerce.

Beyond philanthropy, the Grill Masters satisfies another basic corporate need. “Because we get to know one another on a personal basis and our families and kids participate,” Campbell says, “it’s a good camaraderie-building exercise for us.”

Sofa, So Good

Mark and Stephanie Richmond, owners of the Furniture Warehouse stores in Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, support their favorite charity by driving customers through their doors.

Three times a year, in November, January and March, they offer discount vouchers to customers who donate their old furniture to the Habitat for Humanity Home Improvement Outlet. The customers get $100 off any new furniture purchase of $500 or more, plus a convenient way to dispose of their old furniture and a tax deduction for donating to Habitat. Habitat in return sells that used furniture in order to raise funds to build more houses—Richmond says to the tune of $60,000 since he and his wife started the promotion in January 2007.

They publicize each promotion with about $25,000 worth of advertising on local radio and television and in the three major area daily newspapers. (The Richmonds arrange live radio remotes, and Habitat volunteers grill hot dogs for customers in the Furniture Warehouse parking lot.) And that’s another important aim, he says: “To give Habitat brand recognition in the marketplace.”

Richmond calls it “a triple win.”

“Habitat is a really good partnership for us,” he says. “We have over 100 employees and affordable home ownership is a concern for them. We want customers to become familiar with us. And it’s very inspiring to see how Habitat provides for the community. It really opens your heart to what really counts.”

Green Acres

An unspoiled 173-acre parcel of waterfront property filled with woodland pastures, marshes and streams is now the property of everyone who lives in Manatee County, thanks to Casto Lifestyle Properties. In October, Casto donated the acreage to Manatee County—last appraised several years ago for $5.6 million—for use as a conservation preserve in exchange for the right to develop a commercial center on six acres of wetlands several miles away at the busy corner of I-75 and S.R. 70. (At press time, Casto was still going through the approval process with Manatee County for building the center.)

The name of the park is a mouthful—Twin Rivers Preserve at Gamble Creek Waterfront Ecological Sanctuary—and reflects the fact that it sits at the confluence of Gamble Creek and the upper Manatee River, a protected estuary where fresh and saltwater come together.

“The Gamble Creek property made a lot of sense for environmental preservation,” says Drew Smith, executive vice president of Casto Lifestyle Properties, a national development company headquartered in Sarasota. “It’s a very unique habitat that had been threatened by development—and as good as we get with development in this day and age, there’s still impact that development has on the land.”

Another plus: The property abuts a major land acquisition that Manatee County has purchased for conservation. “It’s one additional piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” says Smith.

The deal was three years in the making. “These kinds of things don’t happen overnight because of all the different agencies that are involved,” says Smith. “The Army Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Commission, Department of Environmental Regulations; it’s quite a process.” Manatee County Commissioner Amy Stein told a local newspaper, “It probably is the most impressive conservation effort in any planned ‘suburban’ shoreline area in the state. It is a jewel.”

The Twin Rivers Preserve will not be an improved park facility; rather it is dedicated for passive conservation, Smith says.


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