By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

A successful and voluntary employee giving program puts its money where its mouth is, freeing organizations to help charities they believe in or causes their employees choose.

At Merced College, the beneficiaries are the Blue Devils themselves.

Since the program at Merced College was revived in 2018, employee giving has gone from “What is that?” to a robust effort powered by donations from over 50 percent of the college’s employees.

“Of all the millions we’ve raised for the college since I’ve been here, I am still most proud of launching this,” Associate Vice President of External Relations Jill Cunningham said. “It engages the team here and helps them understand in a personal way how we’re all working to support students.”

While the college has run an employee giving program in years past, it did not generate enough excitement, participants or money to make an impact. When Cunningham returned to her alma mater in 2018 to lead External Relations and serve as Executive Director of the Merced College Foundation, she knew that had to change.

“It’s not a difficult concept,” she said. “It’s crowdfunding. We told people, ‘If everyone who works here puts in something, we can help students in ways that align with our mission and vision.’”

It started—as so many successful employee initiatives do—with snacks.

The foundation staff stocked their administration building headquarters with nuts, chips, crackers, granola bars, cookies, water, juice, etc., for its initial launch in 2018. Some days they’d add hot coffee or ice cream—anything to entice employees to walk inside.

The staff would then ply them with food and drink, talk about employee giving, and sign up visitors for monthly raffle prizes like Lowe’s gift cards or a big annual prize like a trip for four to Disneyland.

For the 2021 launch, starting in August, it will be all about cold, hard cash. This year the employees who sign up for giving or continue to participate will be entered into a drawing to win $1,000.

Cunningham said over 50 percent of employees now give anywhere from $5 to $200 per month, for a total of about $3,000 per month.

“That’s not an insignificant amount,” Cunningham said. “Every dollar that comes in via employee giving goes straight back out to support our students.”

To use the funds, faculty or student leaders can apply for mini-grants by filling out a one-page application. The independent Merced College Foundation Board reviews the applications and approves them. While other grants have strict funding requirements, the foundation mini-grants need to fulfill just one criteria: helping students.

“A lot of times, the projects we help can’t be funded in any other way,” Cunningham said. “Before they’d hear ‘No,’ and now we’re able to say, ‘Yes, we can help.’”

The employee donations have funded trips for baseball and debate teams, prizes for students during extreme registration and other recruitment events, and helped refurbish the athletic training facilities as well as remodel the pool office and purchase a wireless microphone for campuswide events.

In Los Banos, the mini-grants have bought gift cards for students of the month and a raffle for non-credit students to entice them to use campus services.

“Our non-credit students were so surprised there was something for them,” Dean of the Los Banos Campus Jessica Moran said. “They needed the acknowledgement.”

Moran also used a mini-grant to purchase matching polo shirts that learning lab employees wear on Fridays.

“I know a polo sounds like the smallest thing,” Moran said. “But now it’s our Friday shirt. We look like a team, which helps us be more engaged when we’re helping students.”

Cunningham admits the program was a tough sell to start. Some didn’t know what the Foundation did. Did it give away scholarships? Yes, but there was more to know. Employee donations support programs that traditional grants could not, and connecting employees to a common cause boosts morale.

“When the administrative team and the Board of Trustees and anyone from the lowest to highest paid employees are giving, they’re saying, ‘I believe in what we’re doing. I believe in the students,’” Cunningham said. “And then more people say, ‘Let me be a part of that.’ Giving begets giving.”

Merced College’s goal is 100 percent employee participation.

“How powerful would it be to be able to say 100 percent of our employees are involved?” Cunningham said.

Moran said she gives for a simple reason.

“At some point, someone believed in me and gave me a scholarship, and that went a long way,” Moran said. “Even $50 or $100 can be a game-changer for our students. Honestly, we could fix the world $50 at a time.”


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