Episode 36: Corporate Giving with Neil Willenson of Kapco, Inc.
On this edition of Brandstorm, Dan Trzinski and Nancy Christopher talk about how to set up the charitable arm of a corporation with Neil Willenson, VP of Community Relations and co-founder of Hometown Heroes and Camp Reunite for Kapco Metal Stamping.
About Neil Willenson
While Neil studied Film and did some acting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it was his work as a camp counselor at Camp Minikani and in the Poconos, where he would find his calling. Tucking kids into bed that summer after graduating, he would read the biography of Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac infected with AIDS through blood transfusions. White would become the poster child for AIDS education and advocacy. Neil wanted the young campers to know that you can’t catch AIDS from touching, hugging or kissing others with the disease. When he returned home, however, he read an article about an AIDS scare in his community. He called the mother featured in the article and found out that Dawn Wolfe had been infected by her husband. One of her kids was HIV positive; the other HIV negative. Neil knew he needed to do something about the AIDS scare, so he created Camp Heartland, a safe haven for kids with AIDS and HIV. That one week of camp turned into a 20-year career as executive director .
When Neil met Jim Kacmarcik, the CEO of Kapco Metal Stamping, Jim was a generous contributor to Camp Heartland. Jim asked Neil to be the keynote speaker at the Kapco Charitable Challenge, an event that tested college students to pay it forward. Each group of students were given $1,000 to leverage and help people they did not know. Two of the groups picked the same family to help build an accessible home. Eleven years prior, the single mom had given birth to quadruplets. One child died at birth; two of the kids had cerebral palsy (CP). By age 11, the kids with CP had developed spiral muscular atrophy and just weeks later, the mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Neil called the casting director from ABC’s “Extreme Home Makeover” to get the cast and crew to build a wheelchair-accessible home for the family. Having done a similar story already, the reality show turned down Neil’s request, so he went Jim Kacmarcik for help. Kacmarcik not only agreed, but rallied 1,000 volunteers to help build the home, which was documented in a one-hour special on NBC’s “Dateline.”
Willenson and Kacmarcik became collaborators and friends. When Jim called Neil next, he wanted Neil to hook him up with a celebrity because he wanted to start a record label. During the meeting, Jim said he also want to buy a baseball team, do more philanthropy, and needed someone to help him. After 20 years of asking for money and seeing more than 100 children who came through Camp Heartland die, Neil was ready for a change. Four months later, Neil started at Kapco as the vice president of community relations.
About Kapco Metal Stamping
Founded in 1972, Kapco is based in Grafton, Wis., and manufactures metal components for customers needing stamping, fabrication and welding. The company also owns the Lakeshore Chinooks, part of a collegiate summer baseball league, K-Nation Entertainment, Given Music Publishing in Nashville, and SpeedKore, an automotive company that outfits muscle cars with carbon fiber (as seen in the “Fast and Furious” series and “Jay Leno’s Garage”). Most recently, the company has launched its Inspire America Speakers Bureau.
Kapco’s Philanthropic Initiatives
The focus of Kapco’s philanthropic efforts is kids and families in need. Philanthropy is not a business strategy at Kapco, so the company does not require corporate logos to be included in any organization’s collateral. However, Kapco also has hybrid initiatives with its marketing department that do require corporate identity. Some examples include its annual Toy Drive and the Milwaukee Bucks Home Court Heroes program, which honors an individual or individuals who, through their unique commitment and humanitarian spirit, have made exceptional and lasting contributions to our community.
Kapco has vetted more than 200 charities, meeting with board members and going through each organizations’ financials. While the company does write checks to charities, Neil and Jim prefer to partner with organizations, like Operation Dream, a group of African American males who mentor kids who don’t have fathers. Jim and Neil alternate making decisions about charitable giving, but employees can also have a say, and Neil has never turned down an employee who is dedicated to a cause. Also, every year, Kapco holds an employee raffle and the winner can choose from 30 to 40 vetted charities to give a donation.
Jim and Neil are also co-founders of two charitable organizations: Camp Hometown Heroes for kids who have lost a parent serving our country; and Camp Reunite, which reunites imprisoned mothers at Taycheedah with their children for five hours at a time to learn about coping skills and violence prevention.
Neil says a side benefit of Kapco’s philanthropy is that, in some cases, attracts employees, who view Kapco as having a great culture. This is especially true for senior-level executives. Some of Kapco’s customers are also deeply involved in Kapco’s charitable giving programs.
Advice for Other Companies
With so many great charities at the local and national levels, Neil says companies need to hone in on what they want to support. Corporate leadership should set priorities and include volunteerism wherever possible. Companies should also consider anything that can mean a win for the business and involve employees.
Neil cites two organizations that have excellent charitable giving programs. “Kohl’s for Kids” not only allows groups of five or more of its employees to provide community service, but also pays the charitable organization $100 for each Kohl’s employee who serves. Direct Supply gives its employees 8 hours each year with pay to help a charity in need.