A different sort of holiday cheer

In Chicago, gifts pile up for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program.
In Chicago, gifts pile up for the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program. (M. Spencer Green/associated Press)
By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 22, 2009

This holiday season, some workplaces are trading Chardonnay for charity contributions and crepes for kindness.

At employers large and small, the holiday party has disappeared or become a shadow of its former self. In its place, bosses are planning help-the-hungry or cheer-the-children campaigns.

One consulting firm is asking clients and employees to bring gloves, hats and scarves to its holiday party next month. Other organizations donate funds to support low-income children, veterans or soup kitchens. Some collect donations from staff members or customers; others ask their employees to tackle unfamiliar tasks to help others.

Employees at the big accounting firm KPMG will spend four to eight hours on Dec. 4 making teddy bears and wrapping them up with books. "Some may stuff. Some may stitch. Some may write personal notes to the kids," said Candy Duncan, managing partner. She expects her business consultants, tax accountants and others in the Tysons Corner and District offices to deliver close to 1,500 bear-book packages by day's end.

With the economy still sputtering and rounds of layoffs fresh in everyone's minds, lavish holiday galas seem as old-fashioned as dial-up Internet connections.

"They're not in a party mood. Everyone's more serious now," said Jo Bennett, partner in Battalia Winston Amrop, a New York executive-search firm that has asked Corporate America about holiday party plans. About 81 percent of companies surveyed said they plan a holiday celebration -- the lowest level since the survey began 21 years ago. More than half said they'd canceled their party or reduced its scale.

Yet the trend toward charity has advantages. It can be less costly than a party, and it can help burnish a company's reputation. For a small association or business, charitable fundraisers also help raise visibility and may bring in new members or clients.

Diverse Office Solutions of Gaithersburg for the first time will skip a party for the crew and pick up playthings for low-income children instead. Workers will finish a Thanksgiving food drive and go right into a toy collection for yet-to-be determined charities in Montgomery County.

"We just really want to give back. . . . We want to get our name out in the community," said David Abramson, president of Diverse Office Solutions. The campaigns are creating enthusiasm among workers and customers. Drivers have been collecting food in their trucks, and next month they'll pick up toys. Some customers have called, asking if the company will pick up donations even if they haven't ordered office supplies or furniture. "Of course we'll do that for them," he said.

Some organizations combine merrymaking with philanthropy.

At North Highland, a business consulting firm, the holiday party continues to be a festive family affair -- with a charitable piece. Employees and clients made donations to Toys for Tots last year and this year have been asked to give children's hats, scarves and mittens to two nonprofit groups. Any materials left over from the children's ornament-making and other party activities also will go to a family shelter, said Maria Bothwell, vice president and office lead.

The company stages other charitable fundraisers -- including providing Thanksgiving food baskets for 35 families. Community service has become "an engrained part of our business model," which clients and staffers both appreciate, she said.

Yet fewer companies expect to donate to charities this season. Some 66 percent say they plan food drives or other charitable efforts this year, down from 74 percent last year, the Battalia survey found. Bennett thinks the companies turning their parties into charitable events are "more foresighted."

Count Hodgson Consulting among the early adaptors. For at least four years, the Web development and interactive technologies firm in Kensington has held a potluck and donated what a party would have cost to a program that helps low-income families with infants and toddlers.

"At the beginning it was $700 or $800, and it grew to $2,500" as the company grew from three to 25 people, said Matt Hodgson, company founder. He started donating for grocery gift cards when he joined the board of the Corporate Volunteer Council of Montgomery County, which encourages partnerships between businesses and nonprofit organizations. At the council's most recent meeting, several members said they were considering giving up their parties in favor of community giving, Hodgson said.

Several District law firms have canceled holiday parties this year. "Given the economic climate, a fancy holiday party didn't seem exactly appropriate," said Michelle Lang, marketing manager for Katten Muchin Rosenman. Instead, the firm will donate to the Capital Area Food Bank. Some bosses believe keeping employees attached to their workplace -- and community -- is the true gift in holiday-giving events.

At KPMG, conference rooms will have food and holiday music. Duncan said it would be a festive day as bears and books go out to a dozen charities, including CASA, La Clinica del Pueblo and the Fishing School.

As she put it: "It's a good day for camaraderie as well as community service."

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