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True Community Investors

Through philanthropy, real estate pros are making their towns and cities better places to live.

Without question, the real estate business has a positive impact on communities in very visible ways. Houses are repaired and brought up to code to sell. Historic buildings are restored as trendy condos. And retail centers are revitalized.

Believing their impact can be even greater, some leaders choose to extend those benefits beyond the for-profit world by volunteering, giving to nonprofits and engaging in other generous activities.

“I think all of us, at some point in our careers, decide that it’s important to give back in one capacity or another,” says Susan Dupont, president of SGF Contracting Services of Nixa, Missouri.

CREATE A CULTURE OF GIVING

The owner of a Portland, Oregon-based real estate company created her business with a community-minded philosophy. Jenelle Isaacson started Living Room Realty nine years ago at the height of the recession when it was hard to recruit agents based on production numbers. So, Isaacson sought agents who were deeply rooted in community organizations and had an existing network. Looking back, she says that move was both altruistic and good business.

“It was really a part of the culture that was embedded early on,” says Isaacson, whose company helps people buy and sell residential and commercial property, provides property management services and places tenants.

At first, employees and agents lacked the cash to donate on a big scale, so Living Room opened its offices after business hours to community events such as parenting classes, art shows and mayoral candidate meetings.

“We have really beautiful neighborhood storefront locations that can double as community event centers,” says Isaacson of her six offices.

Living Room is a Certified B Corp, or a for-profit company that meets social responsibility requirements, such as donating 5 percent of its profits. Today, Living Room, with 98 agents and 16 staff members, supports the community in a variety of ways, including giving to the Rock ‘n Roll Camp for Girls, which builds self-esteem through music, and by sponsoring alternative proms for LGBT youth.

The company’s giving fund, called Loving Room, allows agents to donate anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars at the close of each transaction. That money is deposited into a trust account and then distributed to three nonprofits selected by the agents. In the eight months after Loving Room began, the company gave away $30,000. Isaacson says one nonprofit has an annual budget of $200,000 so “it’s a way to really make an impact.”

GET SMART

Though she was already busy as president of SGF Contracting Services, Susan Dupont became interested in how nonprofits pursued their missions and operated effectively. So she decided to study for a certificate in nonprofit management at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

SGF Contracting Services provides renovation, rehab and repairs on single-family and multifamily properties in eight states, servicing real estate investors of all sizes from institutional to individual, as well as asset management firms, investment firms and government agencies. Founded in 2013, SGF’s dedicated staff and contractor network of more than 40 provides professional and trade services to get properties ready to be rented or sold on time and on budget.

Dupont’s newfound knowledge and her staff’s experience led her to Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit that provides free repairs for low-income homeowners.

“I thought that would be a really good fit for us because it takes advantage of the skill sets we already have and the desire to impact local communities on a small but very important basis,” says Dupont.

Dupont began by volunteering in a North Carolina project where she brought subcontractors who pitched in while she did some yardwork. They worked alongside employees of other companies to repair the house inside and out.

“Everybody descended on this house and was raking and bagging debris, or cutting down bushes to clear it away from the house for painting, or putting in new lighting, railing and gutters to make the house safe and livable,” says Dupont.

Her new certification paves the way for volunteering beyond yard work—such as being a valuable board member.

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL

Dupont thinks most companies and employees are receptive to putting their talents to good use in a nonprofit organization. The keys are finding the right fit and recognizing that responding to an immediate need, such as a natural disaster, can provide crucial support even if the effort initially seems small.

“Companies need to understand it doesn’t always have to be a huge undertaking,” says Dupont. “If you’re impacting one family, or one small community, in some way, to those people it’s very meaningful.”

Companies can meet desperate needs for clothing, water and food, often without big financial costs. Yet they can make a big difference in the lives of the impacted families.

DECIDE THE RIGHT PATH

Isaacson sought employee and agent input into which nonprofits were important to them. They made it a fun game—everyone voted by putting Swedish Fish candies into various bags marked for world issues like hunger, mental illness and homelessness. The outcome is a company that fosters trust and where agents are engaged in their community. That’s one reason why Living Room was recently voted one of Oregon’s top midsized companies to work for.

“They have to see the company give back,” says Isaacson. “It’s not enough to ask your agents to give—I think the company itself really has to take leadership here.”

Dupont points out that if employees work in several states, it’s wise to lay the groundwork with an organization that serves all the areas that your company does.

END RESULT

Salespeople are often stereotyped—we’ve all seen movies where they’re portrayed as the sleazy bad guys only out for a buck. Isaacson is proud of how her agents challenge that perception.

“I notice all the time in the community that people say, ‘Oh, Living Room Realty—I love those guys,’” says Isaacson. “I laugh to myself because who says that?”

With $400 million in sales and true roots in the community, the approach is working well for all.

Find a volunteer opportunity. Follow your heart. It’s a winning combination for business and community.

“There’s need everywhere,” says Dupont. “It’s just a matter of what you can do to impact somebody in some way who has need.”