How The TowerCares Foundation Maximizes Its Impact

As the philanthropic organization surges past the $1 million mark, its CEO looks back on lessons learned and offers advice for those just getting started.

 
 

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Tower Federal Credit Union launched its foundation at the end of 2015 with a focus on helping local military heroes and children in need
  • The foundation is 100% volunteer run and had already funded $1 million in grants by July 2021
  • In addition to an annual golf tournament and employee-driven fundraising events throughout the year, Tower FCU donates one cent of each debit or credit card transaction to TowerCares

Tower Federal Credit Union($4.3B, Laurel, MD) has always had a charitable giving element, according to President & CEO Rick Stafford. However, the credit union knew it could make a bigger community impact and began exploring the process of creating a separate, distinct foundation back in early 2015.

Thanks to the industry’s spirit of collaboration, Tower was able to benefit from other credit unions that had already formed their own foundations, and quickly learned the pros and cons of creating one from scratch. The result was the TowerCares Foundation, which launched in late 2015.

The foundation aims to address the most pressing needs of the communities it serves, with a focus on supporting local military heroes and children in need as an extension of the credit union’s field of membership. Today, the foundation supports 79 charitable organizations and has a college scholarship program to provide funds for STEM students and those pursuing linguistics.

"At the end of the day, the work we do through the foundation is an extension of our mission as a credit union and the movement as a whole."

Rick Stafford, President/CEO, Tower Federal Credit Union

As a 100% volunteer-run foundation, the credit union’s CEO also serves as president of TowerCares, while a volunteer board oversees it and many passionate employees volunteer their time. Administrative support, such as reporting, is also provided by Tower FCU to ensure that none of the donations go to pay anyone’s salary.

An Immediate Impact

Thanks to collaboration with industry peers, organizers were able to launch the foundation in roughly half the time it might have otherwise taken, enabling organizers to make a more immediate impact.

“There was – and still is – so much excitement from our employees,” says Stafford. In fact, the CEO has even incorporated the foundation into his remarks as part of new-employee orientation. Asking team members from the beginning if they, or their families or friends work with charities that help veterans or children in need, has helped foster engagement.

According to Stafford, every single donation TowerCares has made to date has come directly from an employee suggestion. A few examples of the foundation’s many community partners may be found in their $1 million milestone celebration video.

And while hitting the $1 million milestone was “awesome” because it symbolized the hard work of so many talented employees committed to giving back, Stafford says the foundation has never focused on achieving specific fundraising goals. Instead, the Tower employees who volunteer their time are focused on doing even more good in the future.

Pennies for Change

TowerCares’ varied funding sources all add up, but the credit union’s innovative Pennies For Change program, which was introduced during the foundtion's third year, has been extremely beneficial, according to Stafford. 

Through the program, Tower FCU donates one penny from every debit or credit card transaction to TowerCares. In the first year, that resulted in $200,000 worth of donations and jumped up to $250,000 the program’s second year. The credit union expects the Pennies for Change component to continue to grow.

In terms of lessons learned, Stafford says having funding sources like the Pennies for Change program available on day one would have been helpful.

Another funding source, the annual Tower Classic Golf Tournament, hit a new record when it raised $60,000 this year, and the “Have a Heart” campaign in Tower’s branches each February contributes significantly to the foundation’s support of the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

 

Employees and departments are encouraged to hold fundraisers throughout the year as well, and smaller events such as casual jeans days for staff and bake sales that raise a few hundred dollars at a time have a direct impact on the grants the foundation funds. “Everybody loves food,” quips Stafford.

 Advice for Others

When it comes to advice for other industry foundations, Stafford’s advice was simple: “Don’t go it alone.” He encourages other credit unions to collaborate and reach out to their peers with existing foundations. That includes TowerCares. There are a lot of logistics and legal work involved, but working with cooperatives who have been through the process, along with consulting local attorneys, can be very helpful, according to the CEO.

And while Stafford admits TowerCares didn’t do everything perfectly right out of the gate, he and his team have enjoyed the learning experience and remain committed to the long-term journey of seeing just how much the foundation can positively impact the community.

“Remember, every credit union runs their foundation slightly differently from a tactical operations and strategic point of view,” says Stafford. “You don’t have to mimic exactly what is working somewhere else. You have the luxury of being a little creative when it comes to your foundation’s path forward.”

Lastly, the fact that Tower employees volunteer their time to work in the foundation means every penny raised is going back out the door. “That makes a huge impact,” says Stafford. "At the end of the day, the work we do through the foundation is an extension of our mission as a credit union and the movement as a whole."