Firm Explains The Tithe That Binds

June 11, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Giving is often its own reward. But if enough is given over a given time, then giving can bring about a few unforeseen rewards.

The Williams Group, a local international communications and marketing firm, can attest to both accounts. It has given without any expected returns. But it has given enough for long enough that its giving has unexpectedly given the company a path into new markets.

Robert Tobin, the company president, a tad hesitant to speak with the Business Journal about the firm’s charitable track record. He didn’t want to appear to be laying claim to doing something that others don’t do, or suggesting that his firm does it better than anyone else.

But after a bit of coaxing, he agreed to talk and he did neither.

Tobin said that eight years ago the Williams Group decided to invest in philanthropy as an area of business, a natural investment for the firm to make since much of its culture is firmly rooted in philanthropy.

“We still pursue that pretty purposefully and are just delighted with the fact that today we have worked with hundreds of community foundations across the country, as well as some of the leading private foundations in the Midwest, in California and in the East,” said Tobin.

“It is incredibly rewarding from a values point of view. It really aligns and meshes with the values of this organization, and it is also obviously rewarding from a work-content point of view.”

Clients of the Williams Group pretty much cover the gamut of business; they range from smaller nonprofits to some of the nation’s largest companies.

“We’ve got some wonderful corporate accounts, including Steelcase, our anchor corporate account for years,” said Tobin.

“And our nonprofit clients have a product that you just can’t beat, because those folks get out of bed every day to do good.”

What led to the firm’s rewarding position was one of its long-standing policies: to tithe — to target 10 percent of its yearly profits to worthwhile causes and groups. And at the heart of the Williams Group’s benevolence is its profit-sharing plan, which is enacted every year at an annual meeting.

In April, the firm gave each employee $2,000. The first $1,000 was a reward for them to keep. The second $1,000 was a gift for them to give to their selected charities.

It’s that second $1,000 of the $2,000 that accounts for the philanthropic portion of the Williams Group’s profit-sharing plan, money that has been taken directly from the firm’s net profits every year. And every employee in every one of those years has participated in the giving.

“Over the years, we have written hundreds of checks to an incredibly diverse range of nonprofits,” said Tobin. “It’s always interesting and usually surprising to see the range of interests represented on our staff.”

Bible camps, hospice programs, dunes preservation efforts, service dogs and pregnancy centers are a few of the dozens of organizations and causes employees have supported, and quite likely enriched, all these years with their shares of the company’s profits.

“I think it is probably genuinely connected to who we are, to how we see the world, and how we see the role of business in the world,” said Tobin on why he felt the giving has gone on for so long.

Company founder Dennis Williams gets most of the credit for the charitable values the firm has held for many years. He began the Epilogos Charities, which dedicated 2 percent of profits for a full year to help establish the Wheeler Formation Center in Guatemala.

Rockford Companies CEO John Wheeler and Chris Wheeler funded the center, while volunteers from Rockford Construction built it. The center provides humanitarian aid to poverty victims in Guatemala’s mountainous highlands. Williams, who started the firm in 1978, served in that country as a member of the Peace Corps during the 1960s.

“Epilogos Charities is still active,” said Tobin in a phone interview from his 44th Street office. “We still contribute to that charity every year.”

The company’s concern for others has helped others, just as its giving has helped develop a new business direction over the years. But what about internally? What has the willingness to be unselfish done for the people of the Williams Group?

“I think it has helped our people have a greater perspective on the world and also helped our people have a greater connection to the world, as well as with each other within our own four walls,” said Tobin.

“I think in the early 1980s we realized that we weren’t going to conquer the world. So I think that helps us to have a perspective on the fact that maybe we ought to be a better part of it.”      

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