Strong Foundation: KBE Celebrates 50 Years by Giving Back
The people who work here are passionate about giving back. It’s a big reason why they come to work here,” says Robert Dunn, a vice president at KBE Building Corporation.
“Giving back” refers to the employee-driven, robust philanthropic activities at KBE, a commercial construction-services firm based in Farmington, Connecticut, with offices in three other states. KBE’s slate of charitable initiatives launched in 2009 as a way to recognize the firm’s 50th anniversary—hence its original name, 50 Ways To Make A Difference—before being brought under the newly created KBE Foundation in 2022.
The Foundation, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) and 509(a)(1) public charity, consolidates and provides more structure to KBE’s financial donations and volunteer projects, according to Jonelle Lawhorn, KBE’s director of marketing, in addition to “enabling us to expand our support.”
The Foundation amplifies what was already a substantial effort focused on “those areas where we have projects and a presence,” says Dunn, who serves as the organization’s president. Since 2009, KBE has donated more than $4 million directly and in pro bono work—in addition to about 13,000 work hours—to various charitable initiatives serving employees’ communities, states and the construction industry itself.
One of those initiatives is KBE’s Construction Career Scholarship Program, which since 2015 has awarded $132,000 in scholarships to 119 high-school students planning to enter construction management or the trades—a good cause with a practical strategic benefit. “We’ve long heard about workforce shortages,” Lawhorn says, “and we wanted to find a way to get high-school kids engaged.”
KBE reached out to Connecticut’s 18 technical high schools to identify potential applicants, who submit essays to be considered for $1,000 awards geared toward tuition, tools, licensing-exam fees and other related expenses. The program has gained traction, with Lawhorn reporting that, while about 25 students applied five years ago, this year nearly 50 applied.
The awards ceremony for the scholarship program is one of the Foundation’s five signature annual events, all of them run by employee and family volunteers from KBE and its affiliates. Another is a golf tournament that serves as a significant fundraiser for the scholarships and the other signature events: a barbeque lunch at a veteran’s hospital in Connecticut, a Special Olympics fishing tournament and KBE’s Gift of Gobble/Thanksgiving’s On Us. The Thanksgiving event was intended to be held once, in 2009, but “the staff loved it so much we just kept doing it,” Lawhorn says.
Since then, KBE volunteers for Gift of Gobble have reached out to 14 agencies throughout Connecticut to find people in need, says KBE’s Maryellen Cherwinski, who serves as chair of the Foundation employee committee that coordinates the events and helps direct the organization’s charitable support. Over the years, Gift of Gobble has provided full meals to 4,000 families. Last year, KBE volunteers assembled nearly 500 Thanksgiving meals with turkeys and holiday fixings—all purchased by the Foundation. They then transported the boxed meals to area charitable agencies that distributed them to people in need.
Other charitable efforts are underway at KBE’s Farmington headquarters—where 120 of the company’s 170 employees are based—as well as at its Laurel, Maryland, and Norwalk, Connecticut, offices and its affiliates: New Valley Construction in Scottsdale, Arizona, and KBE-NY in New York. Those efforts include employee charitable donations matched by KBE; community health and welfare support, such as donating $10,000 to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut, to support its day-long Medical Mission at Home, which provides free health-care, social and support services to area residents; and charitable works for children and families, such as donating $5,000 to help improve facilities at Hartford, Connecticut’s Camp Courant, which provides summer-camp experiences for kids from families in need. The Arizona office has additional events, including a Thanksgiving food pantry, an annual holiday toy drive and a backpack drive for young students.
Beyond the Foundation programs, KBE gives employees eight hours of paid volunteer time annually for things like chaperoning a school trip or reading to their children’s classes. This year KBE also continued its work with Habitat for Humanity by providing a financial contribution through the Foundation to help build a children’s playhouse that was donated to a Connecticut family, and volunteering with a Habitat build-out of the first floor of a home in Hartford.
MAKING IT WORK
Such activities take elbow grease, vision and plenty of planning. The Foundation’s leadership team and volunteer committee meet regularly to plan charitable activities, including remote conferencing with employees in KBE’s regional offices and affiliated companies.
Some tips may spark ideas for other companies looking to start or enhance their own philanthropy. For example, “Start small,” Dunn says. “Do one thing, do it well, achieve success, meet your goal, and then challenge yourself a little more the next time.” Cherwinski notes that if companies offer charitable opportunities for new employees who already volunteer on their own—as often is the case at KBE—then “people really get engaged.”
The future of KBE’s philanthropy looks promising. “As the companies continue to grow,” Dunn says, “we hope that the Foundation will grow along with us.” He adds: “It’s amazing to see how passionate people are when they are provided an opportunity to give back. It brings out some amazing qualities in people, some of which you may never have seen before.”