IFA Members Making A Difference

The IFA “Members Making A Difference” column focuses on the many IFA members making a difference in their communities and in the world. In this issue’s column, AeroFund’s Stephen Troy discusses how reading about the U.S. Marines’ struggle to get toy donations bolted him immediately into action. Since 1991, AeroFund has worked with Toys R Us to organize many successful toy donation events for several charities.

Stephen Troy, President, AeroFund Financial

When you start a new company  one of the last things on your list of to-dos is to think about what kind of corporate citizen you want to be. How much of your revenue will you give to charity and community services? Will you have an employee volunteer plan? These are not on anyone’s top ten lists or even the top 100 of things to do when you are starting a small business on a shoestring budget and limited capital. As you might expect all eyes are on the bottom line and trying to become profitable as quickly as possible. You aren’t putting a line item in the budget for how much of your precious capital you are going to give away.

I started AeroFund Financial just that way back in 1987. Limited capital and watching the bottom line. Through my business career I have always made small donations when asked, but never actually thought about how to give some of my profits responsibly to non profits. Responsible organized giving I saw as being the domain of large foundations and endowments such as the Bill Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, or the Carnegie foundations. As an individual with limited funds, in the past I donated haphazardly to fund a need when asked to be nice, nothing thoughtful or serious.

By 1991 AeroFund was well on its way to becoming a very successful finance company with offices in 3 geographic regions. My wife and I were very pleased that solid profits were rolling in. Still not much thought was given to giving our money away in an organized fashion or any fashion at that point. It wasn’t until I read in the newspaper that the United States Marines were having difficulty receiving toy dona- tions for Toys for Tots. It was that morning in December that I became engaged in organized charitable giving. I couldn’t bear to think that some child might miss out on Christmas if I didn’t take action.

At that moment I had an epiphany. If I was going to give away money that belonged to the corporation the employees should have a say and we should do it with the same enthusiasm we have in our business. I thought why not include the AeroFund staff in the processes and make it a team building event. With that germ of an idea, we set into motion one of our favorite and successful events in our company’s history.

December 1991 my wife and I orga- nized an outing for the employees to give back to the community and have a little fun along the way. Better yet the employees were about to spend someone else’s money. It doesn’t get better than that. On a cold winter morning the AeroFund staff was ready to descend on our local Toys R Us for a giant shopping spree for the recipi- ents of Toys for Tots. Our entire staff of 12 armed with a budget of $500 each, marched past two fully dressed marines and disappeared into the aisles. For 2 hours each employee studied every box and toy to see if it was the perfect gift they would like to see on Christmas morning. Baskets filled and were dropped at the register at a blis- tering rate while the smiling marines looked on. First, one basket, then 2 then 5 and up to 15… Soon the last employee pushing basket 34 arrived for the final check out. The smiles of the AeroFund employees were contagious. Even a few Toys R Us customers joined in and dropped their donation into the waiting barrels. Guys, you are going to need a bigger truck.

Back at the office the employees were still talking about the shopping spree and it went on for months. As successful the event was, my wife Leanne and I still felt something was missing. Where were those toys going? Would they arrive safely and unbroken? For months we thought about these questions and how we could make this an even more successful annual event. It was then that we hit upon including the community. Why not shop for toys for local kids in need? Why not make it personal?

With those questions in mind we started to contact local children’s charities and offered to shop for toys for the children they serviced. We wanted to bring all the stake holders closer to the outcome. What we asked the various charities to do was supply us with the name, age and sex of the child in need. We also asked for the child’s mental age, if they were disabled, and maybe a suggestion of something that particular child may have asked for from Santa. Our first charity, Hope Rehabilitation, came back with over 90 names. A good start, but my Cracker Jack staff could knock those toys out in less than 15 minutes.

By the time Christmas rolled around in 1992 we had joined with 6 charities. On the appointed day staff members from each organization joined the AeroFund staff at the local Toys R Us to cheer them on. We even got Toys R Us corporate involved by talking them into providing us with an employee discount and we enlisted the local Macy’s to donate wrapping paper for each and every toy we purchased.

Before our now 20 strong employees disappeared into the aisles, each charity representative gave a short talk to our staff explaining the wonderful work they were doing in the community. As soon as the last non-profit representative finished speaking, the dedicated people of AeroFund pushed into the aisles with smiles on their faces, tears in their eyes and a sense of mission.

Toys R Us was much more prepared in 1992 for our take-no-prisoners approach to shopping. Growing to 20 employees and a much bigger budget the Toys R Us staff had to develop their own plan for an efficient check out. No one wanted to make a mistake and misplace a toy destined for a child at one charity only to have one left over at another. 1992 was a great success, but still we knew we it could be bigger, better and more organized. It’s not easy checking out 45 shopping carts loaded with toys with each toy going to one of six different recipients.

Great businesses have to constantly be thinking of how to do things better. Can you simplify? Can you get more organize? Can you scale? Cut costs? You have to Plan, Plan, Plan… If not, someone else just might do it better. This method we use in business is the approach we should be doing in life. AeroFund started to apply this approach in our policy of organized giving.

By the third year AeroFund was hitting on all cylinders and we had our AeroFund Toy event running like a top. The U.S. had entered a recession in 1993 and the need for toys was greater than ever. Over 1500 cards came flooding in from local charities all asking if we could make a Childs Christmas morning bright. We were up for the challenge. Organization would be key, to such a large undertaking. We would only have a few hours to spend thousands of dollars and we wanted to assure we wouldn’t break or misdirect a child’s present. The AeroFund staff had organized a clever double sticker color code system to keep track of the toys. VP of Sales Janet Goddard worked with Toys R Us to open the store early and block off four dedicated registers for an efficient check out. Even the charities where better prepared Instead of coming with staff cars they now brought the company vans.

Our third year we were greeted by Geoffrey the Giraffe as our 24 AeroFund employees, along with a few family members all donning Santa hats passed through the sliding doors of Toys R US. Once again we pushed through the aisles, studied our color coded cards, and started thinking about the best possible gift for the child’s name we held in their hand. AeroFund has repeated this day in December for close to 20 years bringing smiles and laughter and over 15,000 toys to children Christmas morning. As for AeroFund, we get more out of these shopping sprees than the children and the charities. Our employees beam with pride and have a sense of belonging. They know they are working for a company that cares for them and the very community they themselves live. A strong community provides a strong workforce, which in turn provides AeroFund Financial with many happy employees. Put all together you have the ingredients for a better America and a strong happy place to work. A company I am very proud to be a part of.