Charlotte insurance industry supports one charity at a time

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Charlotte is home to 10,000 employees associated with the insurance industry, and a local nonprofit is trying to tap the time, money and expertise of that workforce to support local charities.

Formed in 2011, Community Matters has enlisted 60 member companies and last year donated $200,000 and over 10,200 volunteer hours to Safe Alliance, formerly United Family Services, a nonprofit that serves people struggling with domestic and sexual violence, child abuse and emotional trauma.

“It’s just been huge in helping us deal with challenges,” says Phil Kline, president and CEO of Safe Alliance and himself a 28-year veteran of the Charlotte-based U.S. insurance operation of Royal & Sun Alliance that was acquired in 2007 by Arrowpoint Capital.

Community Matters initially aimed to raise $10,000 to support a capital campaign at Safe Alliance for a new 80-bed shelter for women and children to replace a 29-bed facility.

But enthusiastic response to that effort led Community Matters to take on Safe Alliance as its sole project for 2012, says Tom Lott, a founder and board member of Community Matters and director of sales and marketing at AmWINS Group.

It expanded its fundraising goal to $100,000, a goal it eventually doubled, and also agreed to provide volunteer hours.

Community Matters, an all-volunteer organization, also agreed to continue its support for Safe Alliance this year.

Insurance industry employees, as well as their friends and families, have served meals at the shelter. They have put down mulch on the grounds, and provided landscaping. They have cleaned rooms in the shelter. And they have provided career counseling for residents of the shelter, helping them write resumes and prepare for job interviews.

On each of two occasions, when the shelter needed diapers and laundry detergent, respectively, Community Matters distributed an email alert to its members, who contributed the supplies the shelter needed the same day the alert was distributed.

“Every bit as important as the financial support is the incredible support from volunteers,” says Kline.

The assistance has been doubly important, he says, because the the shelter now is handling 115 to 120 women and children a day through the addition of trundle beds for smaller children, and sleeper sofas in most living areas.

To help raise money, Community Matters held a fundraising dinner at The Club at Longview last November that netted over $66,000, and a dodgeball tournament this past April at Sports Connection that drew over 500 participants and raised just over $56,000.

And during the summer, each of its member companies holds its own fundraising campaign.

At AmWINS Group, for example, employs can wear jeans or flip-flops on Fridays by donating $2 to Safe Alliance, Lott says.

Community Matters this year also launched a “100 days of meals” campaign, providing volunteers to prepare, donate and serve dinner at the shelter on 100 days.

Community Matters volunteers already have served half those meals, and the total likely will save Safe Alliance $25,000, Kline says.

Fundraising events this year included a “Knight Out with the Charlotte Knights” on August 17 at Knights Stadium and will include a cocktail party September 17 at City Tavern at SouthPark mall; and a celebration dinner November 4 at The Club at Longview, when Community Matters will announce the charity it will support in 2014.

Community Matters also is launching a teen program for children of its members’ employees.

“People in the insurance industry,” Lott says, “are here because they care about helping people in need.”

Community Link focuses on homeless

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What was launched in 1929 as a local Travelers Aid Society helping stranded travelers find housing now operates as Community Link, an agency with an annual budget of $3.8 million that helps just over 1,200 families a year get into rental housing or become homeowners for the first time.

And with the consolidation earlier this year of programs from Community Link and two other agencies that focused on providing homeowner education and counseling for first-time homebuyers and homeowners struggling to keep their homes, the organization has taken on that piece of those agencies’ work.

With 34 employees, Community Link focuses on helping homeless people in a six-county region get into housing.

Its mission is to “enable individuals and families to obtain and sustain safe, decent and affordable housing, says Floyd R. Davis Jr., president and CEO.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2011, for example, Community Link helped 816 families moved into rental housing, while helping 252 families become first-time homeowners.

It also helped 600 individuals find housing elsewhere in the U.S. after their attempt to live in Charlotte did not work out and they wanted to return to communities where they had support systems, a program that dates to the agency’s roots as a local Travelers Aid Society.

Community Link’s work with first-time homebuyers began in 2004, when it merged with Ugamma, a smaller agency that focused on home-ownership education and counseling.

That program, which now has been consolidated with similar efforts that had been housed at United Family Services and the Latin American Coalition, has faced rising demand for services as a result of the crippled economy, Davis says.

“Given the economic situation of the last few years, we see a growing number of people are facing difficulty in obtaining and sustaining housing,” he says, mainly because people have lost employment or cannot find jobs.

And people who lost jobs with higher pay are taking jobs with lower pay that otherwise might have been available to people with low-to-moderate incomes, making it tougher for them to find work, he says.

The program at United Family Services that provided housing counseling had served roughly 1,800 people a year, while the program at the Latin American Coalition had served about 400 people a year.

Community Link has hired the housing counselor who worked on that program at the Latin American Coalition, filling a vacant position.

And it has taken on a total of $516,000 in contracts United Family Services had with the city of Charlotte and with the N.C. Housing Finance Agency to operate its program.

Davis says he anticipates Community Link will expand its work assisting homeowners who are facing foreclosure as a result of the damaged economy.

The agency will seek funds to pay for that expansion from dollars the state will receive from a big settlement that attorneys general from a number of states made in lawsuit they filed against financial institutions for the way they had been handling foreclosures, Davis says.

Community Link also launched a new fundraising event in May, a “Sweet Escape” chocolate party, that it estimated would raise $10,000 to $15,000, an event it hopes to hold on an annual basis.

As part of its work, Community Link works to help clients repair their credit, cope with their budgeting, and address problems such as substance abuse and other mental-health issues that may keep them from finding housing.

“We help people deal with the barriers that have prevented them from obtaining rental housing or becoming homeowners,” Davis says.