For years, philanthropy at Torch Technologies meant a run for the cure here, a toy for a tot there. "There were so many charities in the community, so many people asking for help," says William Roark, CEO of the $40 million aerospace and engineering company in Huntsville, Alabama. Then, in 2004, some employees sought substantial company support in raising money to fight Lou Gehrig's disease, and the inadequacy of Torch's ad hoc approach became apparent. Roark charged two employees with applying some method to the madness.
The employees decided organization wasn't enough; they also wanted a philanthropic program with ambition and vision. So they established Torch Helps, a nonprofit organization that's funded by the work force. Most donations come through payroll deductions, and about 70 percent of staff contributes. Employees nominate the charities, which are invited to submit detailed applications. A charity review committee then kicks each applicant's tires using the Better Business Bureau's standards of accountability.
Every quarter, Torch Helps posts summaries of qualifying applications on its website and encourages all employees who contributed time or money to vote for their favorite. The winning organization receives a $10,000 grant, presented at a formal luncheon. Recent recipients include a service that outfits homes with handrails and wheelchair ramps for the elderly and one that helps ease wounded soldiers back into the community. Torch Helps also doles out grants of $500 or less throughout the year and coordinates employee volunteer opportunities, such as construction work for Habitat for Humanity and gift deliveries to the homebound at Christmas.
Torch Helps isn't only employee funded; it is also entirely employee administered. There is a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer as well as a board of seven directors, who serve three-year terms. In addition to the charity review committee, there's a promotion committee that manages the Torch Helps website and a hospitality committee that organizes award luncheons and other events. (Torch Technologies pays for the food and the giant cardboard checks—100 percent of donations goes straight to the charities.)
The nonprofit keeps its eyes on its own backyard, favoring north Alabama charities almost exclusively. It also enlists the help of other companies. For example, soon after Torch Helps's founding, it led the charge among area businesses to replace a trailer and camping equipment stolen from a local Boy Scout troop. "You see firsthand all the need out there, and the feedback comes directly from people you've helped," says Daniel Pritchett, an engineer who serves as president of Torch Helps. "Being involved with this brings me closer to the community."
Torch Technologies makes donations, too, usually to causes that have been vetted by Torch Helps. "Most of our employees are technical," says Scott Parker, COO of Torch Technologies. "If a charity can survive the scrutiny of a bunch of engineers, you can feel real comfortable that it's worthwhile."
One of those engineers is Scott Hall, who has spent five years on the committee that reviews applications and is in his third year on the board. Six months ago, Hall was conducting interviews for an entry-level job in a group he manages. "I asked the applicants, 'Why do you want to come to Torch?' " says Hall. "Three out of four cited Torch Helps. They said it made them think Torch was the kind of place for them. That pumped me up."