Fannie Mae Walks Its Talk

Monday, November 24, 2008

Herb Allison sounded fired up as he took the podium in the chill on Saturday. The chief executive of District-based Fannie Mae looked out at tens of thousands of people who had gathered on the National Mall and declared, "This is a great day, great cause, great crowd."

He was speaking at Fannie's "Help the Homeless" walkathon. Allison joined Fannie 2 1/2 months ago, amid the nation's worst housing crisis since the Great Depression -- one that led the government to take over the mortgage finance giant.

Allison said that not only are the homeless vulnerable, so are those with homes. "The people of Fannie Mae are committed to helping the homeless, and we are doing everything we can to help keep people in their homes," he said. "We must do more, and we will do more."

Fannie says the walkathon has raised more than $70 million for about 200 regional homeless organizations since its start in 1988. Fannie foots the bill for the 3.1-mile walk and also is committing $3 million to support homeless charities. Last year the event raised $7 million.

The walkathon was also a comfort this year to Fannie employees, more than a thousand of whom play some part in supporting the effort. It has been a bruising few years for the staff, whose company has suffered wrenching losses while its stock market value drops to nearly zero. And -- most importantly, say some employees -- as the mission of their company, helping ensure money is available to support moderate-income housing, has been called into question by critics and politicians.

"Despite all the trouble and trauma and difficulty that so many employees have been through, I think people get a very special sense of satisfaction helping the community in these tough economic times," Stacey Stewart, a senior vice president who leads the office of community and charitable giving, said in an interview.

Introducing Allison before the crowd, she said, "I can't imagine anyone with more calm in the face of challenges."

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, its sibling in McLean, have been giant sources of support for local philanthropy, giving about $47 million last year. Allison and his Freddie counterpart, David Moffett, face some tough choices with the companies under government control. They are to deliver to their federal regulator a list of programs to cut and to continue. The government says some charitable giving will continue.

It was continuing Saturday morning, at least, from the chief executive down. At about 9:25, Allison, donning a walkathon T-shirt illustrated by a Bethesda fourth-grader, held hands with his wife Simin and joined the throng of walkers.

-- Zachary A. Goldfarb

© 2008 The Washington Post Company