Charitable giving is big business, and big businesses are increasingly strategic and thoughtful in how they approach their philanthropy. To examine how corporate philanthropy is changing, Columbus CEO and the Columbus Foundation teamed up to invite six local companies to discuss their approaches.

Charitable giving is big business, and big businesses are increasingly strategic and thoughtful in how they approach their philanthropy. In central Ohio, they turn to the Columbus Foundation and its Center for Corporate Philanthropy for guidance to make their giving more effective.

Charitable works and contributions have evolved to more closely mirror the business focus and public persona of the companies involved.

To examine how corporate philanthropy is changing, Columbus CEO and the Columbus Foundation teamed up to invite six local companies to discuss their approaches.

Here are excerpts from that discussion.

How would you describe the relationship between your company's corporate focus and its philanthropic goals? -Mary Yost, editor

Jamie Richardson, VP, government and shareholder relations, White Castle

As a family-owned business, one of the things that we really try to do is understand how we can make a difference in the neighborhoods where we have a presence. It's not just a place where we plant a sign. It's really been about listening and trying to understand what's important in our communities and giving back in a way that makes sense.

We've tried more recently to realize it's not a bad thing to share what we're doing and why. It's not boastful; it's really about sharing more information and trying to give others the chance to take part in that, too. That's the guiding principle that we've tried to use.

Mike Agee, VP, restaurant marketing, Bob Evans Farms Inc.

For us it's about the production of food and our manufacturing facilities, right? The farm-fresh sort of homestyle food and service that we provide to guests in our restaurants, and as Jamie was talking about, engagement in the communities where we work and live. We call all of our corporate giving and philanthropic efforts 'be kind.' You know, we have 'be this,' 'be that,' 'be fit.' And be kind is a perfect sort of play for what we do.

Jeremy Ball, director, corporate philanthropy & events, Big Lots

Ours is laser-focused on Jennifer, which is the name we've given to our core customer. (In) our club rewards program, which is like 30 million-plus people, Jennifer is the name that appears most often. So that's the name that we give our customers, but it allows us in every part of the business to be laser-focused on who Jennifer is, what she wants, what she expects, and quite frankly what she needs in the community. So it drives everything from marketing, to what merchandise we purchase, where we source our materials, to how are we investing in the community. It really is all about Jennifer.

Cathy Lyttle, VP, corporate communications & IR, Worthington Industries

We are guided by a philosophy, and it's really a value system that (founder John H.) McConnell put in place. The company is celebrating its 60th year this year, and it's pretty simple. At the end of the day, you have a company, you employ people. If you are successful in running that company, then you're able to give back to the communities where you are located. And that's been something that we've always followed. If anything, family is really the sort of the center of our giving.

Wendy Bradshaw, director, philanthropy & events, Thirty-One Gifts

We're a direct-selling company, so we have sales consultants in all 50 states and Canada. (Founder) Cindy (Monroe) started the business 10 years ago in the basement of her home. She really has a passion for building women's self-confidence, so that's really what drove her to start the business. And she is passionate about that happening as a result of direct selling and having success through financial stability.

We're in the business of building confident women. We do that through a catalog full of products, but we really do that through our sales consultants at the grassroots level, through our philanthropy and all of the communities that we serve. So it really helps us umbrella what we do.

And similar to Cathy's point about a philosophy, we actually have a statistic that we really focus on, and it's staggering: A girl's self-esteem peaks at age 9. We use that in everything that we do-deciding what programs are we going to support and how can we engage our consultants in our local communities to help become part of changing that statistic.

Jen Bowden, director, community investment, IGS Energy

We just actually created our corporate giving program about six months ago, so we're kind of brand new. The way that our company operates, it truly is a company that cares about changing the world. It's how do you educate companies and the population at large about how they consume energy, where their energy comes from, and how do you create a shift in knowing that? The energy space is complex and changing, right? So for us as we thought about where are going to be the central focuses, it cascades right from our business goals.

One of the key words that we use a lot when we think about philanthropy is inspiration. It's not this sort of peripheral thing that you just have a bucket of money where you go around and give it out. It's how do you look at the core way we're doing it and what we're trying to accomplish, where we're trying to get to, and what is the power of tomorrow? How do you move consumers there? How do you move industry there? The business goals are what drive our philanthropy goals.

How has your corporate philanthropy evolved?

Lyttle: Nonprofits have become more sophisticated and are doing a lot better job of really helping create the value proposition for investing, and that's important to a business. We want to be able to see a return. We want to know that the dollars we are investing in that organization are providing impact in some measurable way.

Richardson: In the past we had a hard time saying no to anybody, so our efforts were really splintered; we took nice to the next level. And some might have taken our kindness for weakness, but I think what we learned is that we can be focused.

Our vision as a company is to feed the souls of the Craver generation everywhere, which we take pretty seriously. And we do that through making memorable moments. So the new filter we use is we call everything we do in our Castle Shares program 'feeding hunger, hopes and dreams.' It's given us a better screen to understand what really fits and what resonates and what's maybe a great cause but maybe we're not the best people to be the main funder.

Ball: A number of things drove (the program's evolution). One was the expectation of our associates. The majority of people who interview with us ask that question in their interview: What are you doing in the community? How do we give back? They put that number at seven or eight (asking) out of 10 people (interviewed).

The other thing is looking around the table at our peers and being held up in the Columbus space and nationally and saying, 'gosh, we want to be respected by our peers and we want to be in that space.' The other thing is just leadership. Our team has evolved over time and they take very much a concerted leadership approach to our whole business. And so they want that because it is now a part of our values.

And then I just never shut up about it. I've been going at it for eight and a half years. It wasn't one magical thing. It was all those things together and looking at the example that was set by others and listening to our people and hearing what HR is saying. A lot of things drove that to where it is.

Agee: Bob Evans was a lot of things. He was an agriculturalist and a great philanthropist, right? So that's really part of our heritage and legacy.

What are some of your key stakeholder groups?

Bowden: My position actually came about because of a group of employees through a leadership development program internally proposed it. We have a pretty young workforce, and just like Jeremy said, that comes up in every interview: What do you guys do in the community? How can I get involved? How does the company support efforts that I want to make as an individual employee?

So being able to have responses and thoughtful strategic responses as potential employees are exploring what their job options are; if it influences their decisions, it matters.

We're a family-owned business, so there are some different dynamics at play when you have a family leadership group. Not every family member is involved in the day-to-day operations of the business, but they all have definite thoughts on what the company should be doing in the community. And then obviously your customers and the community at large are always there as an important stakeholder.

Bradshaw: The number one driver for me is engagement. We have a very grassroots approach to what we're doing. We often say our family is our customers. So the customer at the party can buy in through a cause product or rounding up her order. And at any given time we're going to have now hundreds of thousands of girls partying. So we have a platform for our giving which is pretty helpful.

Richardson: It's never been as competitive as it is now for different groups to raise dollars. There's even more competition for ideas. I don't think it's just the dollars we provide, it's that level of engagement when it's truly a great partnership. (Do you) have someone from your management team who is on that board and you're engaged and aware of what they're doing? So we find we get more nourishment that way. We love to make the investment and see great results happen, but when we can have one of our own leaders serve on a board, when we can have our team members have a chance to volunteer and be part of things, that really just strengthens that.

What specific strategies guide your grantmaking and other philanthropic activities?

Agee: It's four components: food and nutrition-that makes sense as a food/restaurant company-health and wellness, education and the community. We also have a sort of a separate kind of thing we call 'helping hands' for our employees.

Bowden: One of the things we're doing is really trying to be proactive. It's more how do we go out, identify partners that work around the issues that we care about, and then how do we co-create something or help further the work that they're already doing in that space. In addition to just contributing funds, we look at how we can leverage our internal expertise, whether through a board member or an employee getting involved in the volunteer capacity. So it goes beyond just transactional.

Lyttle: When you've been around as long as we've been around, there clearly are organizations that we've supported for a number of years. That doesn't mean that we absolutely will be supporting them every year, but we've got a good history with them and kind of engage with them in some capacity. We sometimes will push back a little bit on what the project is and want to target something that's maybe a little more meaningful. And if there's an opportunity to involve our employees, we want to do that as well.

When your headquarters is here, it kind of falls into the stakeholder group as well. That's part of our responsibility as a good corporate citizen-to be able to respond.

I think all of us sitting around this table are alarmed at the poverty rates in this community and how are we getting at it, how best to apply those dollars to help the issue, leaning on the Columbus Foundation-who just did a pretty exhaustive research project on it-to really try to get at why is this happening. All of us sitting around this tablewant to be focusing our efforts in the right places. We all will pick up the phone and call each other to say, 'what are you doing on this?'

Bradshaw: That's one of the things I love about what we do in our business is that people do have another person to phone a friend and say let's talk about it.

Ball: One of the greatest compliments is when I hear our CEO or another C-suite executive say, 'I have lived in a lot of cities and there is nothing like this community when it comes to people standing together, their philanthropic expectation.' They mean it in a really good way.

What is success or a specific point of pride for your program and why?

Ball: We want to be a company that cares about the community. And we want to be known for that. Our associates may have no idea how much money or time or in-kind merchandise or other things that we've contributed. What they know is they showed up that day and they worked with a family at Ronald McDonald House and they've been there for three months and they have this incredible story that most of us will never experience. They know that by being there that day they've made some level of difference, and that to them is the most important thing and they carry (it) with them forever.

Lyttle: I love to problem-solve with a nonprofit organization. I love to be able to sit down with somebody that has an issue or recognize that issue, particularly if you've got someone on the board that will come back and say, 'we're struggling.' They've got this debt payment that they've got to get rid of.

We did it at the (Peggy R.) McConnell Arts Center. They were paying a certain amount every month to pay down their debt to finish out the building. We simply in the month of December offered up a matching goal, and they went out and fundraised the money to pay it off. It's a big deal for a small organization to be able to get that off their books, which they were maybe four or five years away from getting that done. But it allowed them to move on and do some other programing.

Richardson: The thing that we've evolved towards is letting creativity be the great equalizer. We've realized we don't have to be the only funder or the main funder, but we can come in with an idea that has impact. Probably the most success is with our partnership with a group called Autism Speaks, where we've been their partner now for seven years. We had never done any kind of program in the restaurants where we asked customers for donations. Or if we had, it wasn't integrated; it was kind of limited. We really jumped into that program, and this past year it was unbelievable. We were up 48percent versus goal; we raised $912,000.

Bradshaw: Our business is built around relationships-from consultants building their business to us entering into a relationship with a charity. One of the examples is our Today Show Toy Drive partnership. And we're one of the largest contributors to the Today Show Toy Drive. But one of the things I love about that is we send products into the communities where our consultants live. Now our consultants are actually walking in and building a relationship with a nonprofit in their community that we were able to leverage from a national relationship with an amazing entity. But that relationship word is something that I think we really focus on a lot.

Bowden: The first six months of my job was really educating the family and our executives around shared value and thoughtful strategic philanthropy and what that looks like. And it's not a bad thing if some of our giving can reinforce the business. So to have them now at a place where they're as versed and comfortable sharing that story and telling organizations and business partners and peers this is what we did, this is why, this is how this makes sense for our business, that's a huge win because they wield a lot of influence in that space and having them buy in is important for people who sit in that role.

Social enterprise is another really important component of our giving because it's around how do you create value for communities and places where you work and do business and help change the world through a business model. That's what IGS was created to do.

Agee: It goes back for us to Bob Evans, right? He started the company in '53 as a sausage business, first restaurant in '62, and really with the whole long history of giving back to those communities. So for us it's about heritage, it's about history, legacy, and those kinds of things.

Maybe the best kept secret in the company is our involvement with the Rogosin Institute. Over 25 years ago, some research was done about the islets in pancreases of sows. Within minutes of slaughtering these sows, you take these islets from the pancreas. Rogosin put a lab in our plant and then built a facility 100 yards down the road on our property (with research now approaching human trials). I think we sold that property for a dollar for them to build that facility. It's breakthrough.

Colleen Mitchell, president, Venture3Philanthropy, and Columbus Foundation consultant, summarized:

The way each of you have described and defined community or societal shared value is strategic...And I would assert that by listening to each of you today that you all are personally changed by what your company has asked you to do.

Mary Yost is the editor. Spectrum Reporting LLC provided transcription services for this report.

About the Participating Companies
White Castle

Employees: 10,300

Program origins: The family-owned business has given back to its neighborhoods since 1921; founder Bill Ingram started a family foundation in 1949 which evolved to the Ingram-White Castle Foundation.

Philanthropy budget: ~$2 million annually through combined efforts of the foundation and corporate giving

Philanthropy focus: Feeding hunger, hopes and dreams, with concentration on empowerment and education and a lead role in supporting autism education and research.

Points of pride: Raised $912,000 in 2015 for Autism Speaks through efforts of team members and customers; have helped nearly 1,000 children and grandchildren of employees obtain college degrees through 26 years of the Ingram-White Castle Scholars Program.

Thirty-One Gifts

Employees: 1,323

Program origins: Thirty-One Gives was founded in February 2012 in the US and in September 2013 in Canada.

Philanthropy budget: $800,000 cash annually, $75 million in product since inception

Philanthropy focus: Women, girls and families in Columbus as well as communities where consultants and customers live throughout the US and Canada.

Points of pride: Ronald McDonald House of Central Ohio with a pledge of $450,000 in cash and $450,000 in products over three years, including welcome bags to 150,000 families nationwide at check-in and creation of a full-service spa at the central Ohio house. Girl Talk Inc., peer-to-peer mentoring of high school to middle school girls, receives $450,000 in cash and $150,000 of in-kind support over three years to help grow chapters and increase engagement. Today Show Toy Drive has received more than $17 million in four years in a Thirty-One partnership with the Direct Selling Association.

Worthington Industries

Employees: ~10,500

Program origins: Began with McConnell family and included the company as it became profitable; a philanthropic program became part of the corporate office in the late 1980s, with the Worthington Industries Foundation established in 2004.

Philanthropy budget: ~$1.6 million in 2015

Philanthropy focus: Social service agencies including Mid-Ohio Foodbank, YMCA, the Community Shelter Board and Salvation Army; health-related organizations including Nationwide Children's Hospital, LifeCare Alliance and Ronald McDonald House, as well as the Columbus Zoo.

Points of pride: Support for pediatric cancer research at Nationwide Children's Hospital, fresh food campaign at Mid-Ohio Foodbank, housing programs through Community Shelter Board and YWCA and various races to promote wellness.

Big Lots

Employees: 40,000

Program origins: Giving back since the company's founding in 1967, the Big Lots Foundation was established in December 2014 to ensure greater long-term community impact.

Philanthropy budget: n/a

Philanthropy focus: Healthcare, housing, hunger and education; programs that improve the lives of families and children.

Points of pride: Tables for Thanksgiving 2014: More than 250 associates assembled 400 tables in eight hours for families living in empty houses and also donated table settings. Big Lots' $1.2 million gift allowed Furniture Bank of Central Ohio to give 4,549 families 14-16 pieces of furniture donated by 9,700 central Ohio families.

Feeding America: Big Lots partners with vendors to support more than 200 US food pantries and donated more than 7 million pounds of food in 2014.

IGS Energy

Employees: ~650

Program origins: Building on the White family's generosity, a formal program was established in 2014; the IGS Foundation was created in 2015; includes time off for staff to volunteer.

Philanthropy budget: ~$1 million in 2015

Philanthropy focus: Energy sustainability, social enterprise and entrepreneurship, community volunteerism by IGS employees.

Points of pride: Creation of an energy-efficient combined heat and power system for the Dublin Community Recreation Center; Power of Tomorrow Community Challenge with Junior Achievement of Central Ohio, a five-year, $250,000 pledge that will also provide at least 50 IGS volunteers annually. Staff assistance includes helping JA prepare and match high school students to well-paying, skilled jobs that do not require college degrees.

Bob Evans Farms

Employees: ~33,000

Program origins: Bob Evans himself was a philanthropist in the 1950s; formal program established in 1980.

Annual philanthropy budget: $1.5-$2.0 million

Philanthropy focus: Four pillars of food & nutrition, health & wellness, education and community.

Points of pride: Long-term sponsorship of 4H programing and scholarships; cancer and diabetes research through a partnership with The Rogosin Institute, a nonprofit research and treatment institute, with contributions valued at more than $3.25 million.