Philanthropy works

Alan Lewis I applaud Travel Weekly for its recent coverage of philanthropy in the travel industry. With the exception of this publication and a couple of consumer travel magazines, theres been very little coverage about our industrys efforts -- and obligation -- to give back to the countries we explore. This is unfortunate because many in our industry, such as Micato Safaris, Lindblad Expeditions, International Expeditions and others, have given back, whether through charitable organizations or conservation efforts.

There is much more we can all do, but few travel leaders understand how their companies can actually benefit by making philanthropy a core part of their business. 

I had the privilege of discussing some of these ideas at a roundtable sponsored by the Committee to Encourage Corporate Philanthropy. From our industry, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, of the Carlson Cos., serves on the CECPs board of directors.

These days, with our media blaring stories about Enron greed, Capitol Hill influence peddling and cruise ships literally losing passengers overboard, its no wonder that corporate America sorely needs to redeem itself in the eyes of the public. America needs inspired thinking and funding to impact social issues we care about. We in the travel industry, with our global reach, are in a unique position to lead the charge. To travel executives who think corporate philanthropy is just a nice PR gesture to be addressed only after the bottom line has been served, I say that philanthropy is not just about good works. Its good business.

My own experience with Boston-based Grand Circle Corp. is proof that when you make corporate giving a core part of your business strategy, profitability will follow. 

When my wife, Harriet, and I acquired Grand Circle in 1985, we made philanthropy and community service part of our corporate culture. We attracted associates who were motivated not just by their compensation but also by the desire to be part of something greater than themselves. We engaged everyone in the company (from top to bottom) plus our suppliers and community partners in programs in which we all had a personal stake. Last year, 94% of our associates in Boston and scores of associates around the world involved themselves in one or more of our philanthropic activities.

I believe that making philanthropy a core part of our business has been crucial to our success. Guess what? Weve grown from a company with 10 associates and $27 million in sales to an international corporation with projected 2006 sales of $700 million and 3,000 associates in 45 offices.

Our philanthropic efforts greatly influence our ability to attract and retain some of the most talented associates in the industry as well as the most loyal customers.  The competitive edge has enabled us to thrive for 29 years. In fact, I am convinced it is what allowed us to achieve a record year in the volatile post-9/11 period, a time when so many in our industry either suffered great losses, were forced to merge or went out of business.

Grand Circles humble origins attest to the fact that you neednt be a Fortune 500 company to have your philanthropic efforts succeed. You just need to approach it strategically. We established the nonprofit Grand Circle Foundation in 1992 to manage all of our philanthropic programs, and we apply metrics to it just as we do with any of our travel operations.

Our overseas staffs establish partnerships with communities in the paths of our travelers, developing programs that give something back to those communities.

So I ask you, what communities does your company visit? What is your company doing to support those places? How are you engaging your associates? How are you serving the causes your customers care about? 

Once you start asking yourself those questions, you will reinvigorate your business and begin to view corporate philanthropy not as an added cost but as the privilege of success. We can help change peoples lives for the better and truly bring this world a little closer.  In fact, it should be our first order of business.

Alan Lewis is chairman of Grand Circle Corp., which was recently honored with the CECPs Excellence Award for corporate philanthropy.


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