Charity of Choice
It was only a week 'til the first annual Starwood Western Gala, and Ron Brown was getting nervous.
The event, created and organized by volunteers from his Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. Phoenix office, was supposed to rope in a ponderosa of pesos for Phoenix Children's Hospital.
Instead, it was shaping up to be a Texas-size flop. Only six people had signed up for the evening of western-style festivities. Brown, Starwood's executive vice president and chief financial officer, suggested that it might be best to call the whole thing off.
But Carol Greenwalt and Kathy Treger never flinched.
An executive assistant and accountant, respectively, at Starwood, the two had been instrumental in planning the event, and were convinced their fellow employees would come through and make the gala hoedown a hands-down success.
It was a pretty safe bet.
A natural choice
For two years, Starwood employees have been breaking all kinds of records for kicking up ways to support Phoenix Children's. The company's managers "were looking for something to make our 'charity of choice,'" remembers Clyde Cruise, Greenwalt's boss and a senior vice president/controller with the company's hotel division. And, he says, since Brown has been on the board of the hospital's Foundation since 1991, Phoenix Children's seemed a natural choice.
"When you have someone on the board or in the organization," Cruise says, "that's good. That's a start." But finding a cause that all employees can get behind is a little more ticklish, he says. "If you get something that's political, that's bad. If you get something that's controversial - even if it's a disease, like cancer - some people feel left out. So, we said, 'what's universal?' Kids."
Now all Starwood needed was a project. The hospital's first Radiothon was coming up, and Starwood provided a slew of volunteers. The feedback was good, and the employees were excited, but everybody itched a little for a project the company could call its own.
"We decided we wanted to do our own thing," Cruise says. "Volunteering is okay, but it's not as fun as building your own events."
Greenwalt was chosen to head an employee committee charged with creating and organizing an event, and quickly came up with Starwood's first company fund-raiser: "Trot for Tots," a 5-K run and one-mile "fun run/family walk."
"I sought out everyone I knew who knew something about doing a race," she says. Her fellow employees made a dash to participate, and the first Trot, held at Papago Park, raised $19,000 for Phoenix Children's. The next year, Starwood moved the event downtown, and added a 10K to draw "more serious runners." That second Trot brought in $35,000.
"Every year, it's grown," Greenwalt says, "by numbers, and by the money that we're able to give to Phoenix Children's."
Setting the pace
Trot for Tots, though, turned out to be but the pace-setter for a pack of other Starwood fundraisers; once up to speed, the events committee was soon running over with good ideas. A company-wide rummage sale raised $3,000; hundreds more came in during "Jeans Days," when employees made donations for the privilege of donning denim at their desks. Pilar Morales, a Starwood accountant, made quilts and raffled them off; some of her co-workers did the same with their sports paraphernalia.
The different activities allowed employees to find their own best ways to participate, Greenwalt says. "Ones who don't have time to volunteer in their off-hours can bring things, and still be a part."
None of it, though - not even in combination with all the employees' volunteer support for a variety of Phoenix Children's own events - seemed enough to the Starwood staff. In the summer of 2003, the events committee christened a new project, "Christmas in July": a month-long effort during which employees brought the baby gift of the week - diapers and pull-ups the first week, "sippy cups" and teething toys the second, parenting guides the third. At month's end, the company held a "baby shower" and presented its collection to Phoenix Children's representatives.
That success, in turn, inspired the idea for the Western Gala - a night of country swing music and barbecue, silent auctions and fireworks shows, wagon riding and axe-throwing, roping and raffling. It was a benefit bonanza ... but with a week to go, only a half-dozen employees had been lassoed to attend.
That's when Brown began to wonder if even his ever-giving employees had reached their philanthropic peak.
"We told him, 'Let us do this,'" Greenwalt remembers. "As it turned out, we had over 200 people. " The event raised $9,000 for the hospital.
"Phoenix Children's Hospital has become a part of the Starwood Phoenix culture," Brown says. "We truly value participating in PCH's success."
The greatest incentive for Treger, who sub-chaired the Trot for Tots event and came up with the idea for the Western Gala, is "just knowing the outcome ... where the money's going, what it's doing."
"I just think when you see the kids, and you know you're doing something to help ... it's a great cause," says Danie Brunson, another Starwood accountant, who chaired the Christmas in July and rummage sale events. She herself was in a children's hospital as a child, as were both of her own children. "It's kind of great to give back to something like that."
While Greenwalt still serves as Cruise's assistant, about half her time now goes to working on events for the hospital. Her boss thinks that sends a message to the employees, that "this is as important to us as anything we're doing in the community."
Ron Brown can rest easy. His employees seem to have gotten that message.