Putting Hearts to Work at Work

AbelsonTaylor Employees Team Up to Help Children in the Chicago Area

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When AbelsonTaylor decided in 2002 to begin making charitable gifts in clients' names, everyone loved the idea. Donating money to buy animals—such as goats, rabbits, geese or bees—for use in rural villages around the world was a much more meaningful gift than the traditional basket of luxury food.

Geri Vena-Shores (left) and Cindy Stone are co-chairs of AbelsonTaylor's Hearts AT Work CSR program.
Geri Vena-Shores (left) and Cindy Stone are co-chairs of AbelsonTaylor's Hearts AT Work CSR program.
Clients were delighted. Heifer International, the charity that provided the animals along with training for the villagers, was given a huge boost. And the recipients, small farmers in underdeveloped countries, were able to become financially independent. Today, thanks to that initial generosity, AbelsonTaylor is one of Heifer's largest corporate donors in the world.

While the agency continues to help those in need abroad, a group of us began to wonder, "Why not do the same sort of thing right here in Chicago?" The urge to give back -- to share what we have with those who have less -- is part of our agency culture, built in from the beginning by our president and CEO, Dale Taylor.

As employees, we decided that we could use our creativity and skills -- the things we normally apply to building brands -- and apply them to helping Chicagoans in need.

Our first step in establishing the employees' program was to meet with the agency's senior executives. With their approval, we formed a Committee for Social Responsibility. Then we reached out to the entire staff, hoping that some would respond. To our delight, representatives from every department signed on. Employees chose the name "Hearts AT Work" -- a takeoff on AbelsonTaylor's "Brands AT Work" tagline -- and selected children as the initial beneficiaries.

Although our budget was zero, collective brainstorming produced more than a dozen ideas that could be implemented by pooling hearts and hands and occasional cash contributions.

Our biggest Hearts AT Work project so far is WinterFest, an annual employee-run drive to bring holiday cheer to Chicago's children. The program, launched in December 2008, owes much of its success to our partnership with 17 leading organizations. In 2009, these included a state agency providing help for teenagers, a children's cancer center, a tutoring program, a settlement house and the Chicago branch of the U.S. Postal Service.

Our goal was to provide lots of giving outlets for our employees, so that everyone could get involved. Opportunities included purchasing gifts requested by teenagers as well as by children writing to Santa; donating disposable diapers to Hull House for distribution to families in need; supplying backpacks stuffed with school supplies and gifts to children attending an after-school program; and collecting a truckload of art supplies for cancer patients at Children's Memorial Hospital.

In addition to the official charities, groups of employees came up with their own ideas. For example, the Knit Wits, AbelsonTaylor's lunchtime knitting circle, donated hand-knit hats and vests to Warm Woolies, a group that provides quality hand-knit clothing to children on South Dakota tribal reservations and in Asian and Eastern European orphanages.

Other staff members donated supplies, assembled boxes, wrapped gifts and baked snacks for the volunteers. Nearly all of our agency's 400 staff members participated in one or more of the WinterFest activities.

Earlier in 2009, Hearts AT Work organized two blood drives and marshaled support for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. A "Spring Cleaning for Charity" campaign got us all to clean out our closets. We collected gowns for high school girls to wear to their proms, cell phones for soldiers, books for literacy programs and -- thanks to all the art directors in our midst -- 22 boxes of art supplies for Chicago schools.

Whether knitting, shopping or cleaning out closets, the level of camaraderie among members of our staff is amazing. The act of giving is one of the most satisfying experiences in the world, andsharing the act of giving creates powerful bonds between people.

Hearts AT Work is literally the work of men and women who volunteer time and talent, on top of their regular jobs, to help the children of Chicago. From a practical point of view, having people at a large ad agency work together across job lines is a great team-building exercise. We are people of different ages and backgrounds, yet united in working toward a common goal. That spirit has spread throughout our workplace, giving us all the personal satisfaction of knowing we've touched the lives of so many people in our community.

Cindy Stone is a VP-account director at AbelsonTaylor and Geri Vena-Shores is an account director. They co-founded the agency's Hearts AT Work program in 2008.
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