Since 2003, Mobile-based Thompson Engineering has given away more than $1 million through its charitable foundation, which operates with an employee-driven philosophy.
The foundation was established in 2003 as part of Thompson’s 50th anniversary celebration. The $1 million milestone was achieved in 2020. More than 250 nonprofit organizations in the eight Southern states where Thompson operates have benefited from donations over the years.
A committee of employees meets every other month to review requests for grants, with much of the decision-making done at an annual planning meeting in January. Thompson awards three types of grants, says Chad Brown, chairman of the foundation.
“If an employee has a charity that they work with and want to personally donate, they can submit a request for a matching grant,” he says. “The second is an employee involvement grant, and that would typically be a charity that our employees would volunteer for, and they want to support through a financial gift. Oftentimes it’s an event that they’re having.
“The third one would be a corporate grant. That would be one that we, the foundation, gets a request from. It may not have an active employee volunteering on that, but it fits within the mission of the foundation.”
The emphasis is on employees giving back to the community through causes they personally support. “We couldn’t give you a list of the three top charities because there’s such diversity in our gifts, because our employees are so involved in their communities,” Brown says.
As of this writing, the foundation has raised $1,193,230. In 2016, Thompson Holdings Inc., the parent company of Thompson Engineering, received the prestigious Beacon Award from the Community Foundation of South Alabama. The award recognizes a business or corporation that embodies the spirit of philanthropy.
This year, the foundation had given away more than $90,000 to 54 organizations through September. Of that, some $70,000 went to nonprofits in Alabama. Of those, some of the larger grants went to the American Society of Civil Engineers Chapter at the University of South Alabama, Lifeline Counseling Services, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Habitat for Humanity and the Alabama School of Math and Science.
Thompson also awards scholarships to individual students. Charitable organizations must be 501c3 nonprofits.
Although the causes are diverse, in recent years the foundation has committed 40% of its funds to STEM programs — education initiatives focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“We’re really encouraging that STEM focus, because we really want to focus on educating our youth,” Brown says. Targeting STEM programs also is an investment by Thompson in potential future employees.
One example came up during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools closed and students were isolated at home trying to learn virtually. STEM labs couldn’t meet.
“When everyone went home from work or from school due to COVID, we reached out to the Mobile County Public School System and asked them, ‘How can we help you continue STEM education in this crazy situation that we’re in?’” recalls Renie Kennemer, communications director for Thompson. “They got together and asked us if we could fund virtual STEM labs.”
The foundation helped purchase online programs from ExploreLearning Gizmos: Math & Science Virtual Labs and Simulations, a company that offers some 400 programs for grades 3 through 12. “It had been a program that teachers had used before and really loved,” Kennemer says.
Money is raised through payroll deductions, corporate donation and what has become Thompson’s major fundraising event: an annual fishing rodeo.
“Twenty years ago, when it first started, it was a small group of anglers who liked to get together on Dauphin Island and go fishing,” Kennemer says. “And now, 20 years later, we invite all our employees, our employees’ families and friends. We invite clients, partners we do business with to join us on Dauphin Island, or they can also participate from wherever it is that they are, where they live, or just where they happen to be that weekend.”
A company 5K run went by the wayside because of COVID, but the pandemic influenced an expansion of the fishing rodeo. Participants fish wherever they are, be it the Gulf of Mexico or a lake in Tennessee. Using a specially designed app, they must present photographs of their catch on a weight scale to compete for prizes.
The past two years have seen fundraising records. This year, 151 anglers entered, raising $60,000, Kennemer says.
Companies like Thompson Engineering give nonprofits a level of comfort, especially in uncertain economic times, says Michael Ledger, president and chief executive officer of Feeding the Gulf Coast.
“Just to be able to know that you can pick up the phone and talk to someone there in the organization with the little things and the big things,” Ledger says. “They seem to truly care about the mission, what we’re trying to accomplish here. They try to help us in whatever way they can.”
Once known as the Bay Area Food Bank serving Mobile and Baldwin counties, Feeding the Gulf Coast has spread into three states, from the Louisiana-Mississippi border to just east of Panama City, Florida, and north through Choctaw County, Alabama. The 22,000-square-mile territory includes eight counties in Mississippi, nine counties in Alabama and seven counties in Florida.
The nonprofit provided 29 million meals last year. Food banks are located in Theodore; Gulfport, Mississippi; and Milton, Florida. But Feeding the Gulf Coast also has 600 partners and 400 pantries.
“We’re collecting food from the retailers who have dinged and dented cans they may not be able to sell,” Ledger says. “We’re driving to the stores and collecting all that food. We’re running food drives. We work with the state and federal governments, with other food sources such as commodity foods. We also purchase a lot of food.”
The need has grown dramatically, first because of the pandemic, then inflation and continuing supply problems. The organization has had to purchase more food because supply issues reduce the availability of donated food.
He estimates that Thompson has supplied the equivalent of more than 100,000 meals over the last five years.
“They also come out and volunteer to help sort food, pack boxes for seniors, or pack bags for children’s backpacks. So, volunteerism is another way in which they’ve supported us.
“It’s been greatly appreciated. At times we’ve needed meeting space, and they’ve made their facility available to us and helped us put together some meetings and some other types of events that we’ve had.”
Jane Nicholes is a Mobile-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.
This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Business Alabama.