Employees are happy to do good works when companies follow Leawood entrepreneur’s advice

Laura Wells McKnight co-owns One Celebrations, which helps companies determine the approaches to philanthropy that appeal to their employees. The result, she says, is good for the community, the company and the employees.
Laura Wells McKnight co-owns One Celebrations, which helps companies determine the approaches to philanthropy that appeal to their employees. The result, she says, is good for the community, the company and the employees.

Laura Wells McKnight fishes a scrap of paper out of her purse and prepares herself to draw.

“It’s like this,” she says, speaking of her work at One Celebrations, a company she owns with business partner Ann-Marie Harrington.

On a recent afternoon over coffee in Overland Park, it seems that her business concept is easiest to explain with a visual aid.

She scribbles a circle with COMPANY in the middle.

“I get these calls, usually from a C-level executive,” she says. “ ‘We have this great program …’ And they’re really proud of it. They’re giving to charity, they’re volunteering, they have a matching gifts program, and they’re marketing it and celebrating it.”

Then she draws a circle with EMPLOYEES written in it and says the executive has noted a disconnect between the two circles. She sketches a lightning bolt between them.

The caller, her “C-level executive,” usually goes on to tell her, “people aren’t really appreciating these days off, or they’re not using the matching gifts program, or we do this day of service that costs us a whole bunch of money and people grumble.”

McKnight, a former tax law attorney from Leawood, says this scenario should sound pretty familiar to both employees and company leadership. Most companies, large and small, have a philanthropy program and try to draw their employees into it. She knows because she has been sorting data and formulating ideas on the subject since 2010.

Sometimes the philanthropy program dictates that everyone pick up trash at a park on a Saturday, sometimes it insists that people donate $5 to a charity for the privilege of wearing jeans on Friday.

McKnight calls that approach to philanthropy the “corporate cram-down.”

She continues her scenario. Her caller’s company is losing time and money because its employees are being forced to do good in ways they don’t want to.

“It’s a tragedy for doing good to make people feel guilty,” she says. “That doesn’t work.”

Business partner Harrington, who’s based in Portsmouth, R.I., says the work McKnight was doing clicked with her immediately when they met in 2014.

They eventually called the solution to the corporate cram-down “the social impact platform” — sort of a corporate philanthropy version of the Myers-Briggs personality test.

McKnight explains that after the initial call for help, she administers a 10-minute anonymous survey to the employees that asks what “good” they’re already doing, i.e. recycling, volunteering at an animal shelter, helping at their child’s school, writing checks for cancer research.

She inventories the answers and determines what “social impact personality type” the employees are: activator, investor or connector. The individuals’ types lead to typing the culture as a whole.

Harrington, who’s responsible for the technical aspects of the business, identifies as a connector.

“I like to see the results of my work or the contribution. I like to connect with other people. I like seeing the impact my giving will make in my community,” she says.

Once an employer knows what the majority of employees are happy doing, the company’s philanthropy program is tailored accordingly — and everybody’s happy. McKnight says it typically takes little adjustment to the original program before it’s off the ground.

“I love it when we do one of these and we find that sweet spot by solving the corporate cram-down, doing the survey and tweaking the program so that it’s good for the community, good for the employees and good for the company,” McKnight says.

It took her about five years of research — and a team of about 11 researchers — to nail down the most effective survey tool. They spoke with thousands of people all over the nation, including high-level executives, children, civic leaders and moms.

In the book she wrote about the project, “Do Good, Feel Better,” she says she eventually developed a list of 10 ways that people do good work.

Now, she has more than 70 clients from Colorado to Georgia.

The first company One Celebrations worked with was Two West, a wealth management organization in Kansas City. McKnight and Ryan Rink, one of the Two West partners, had been hosting a radio show, Live With Rink and Laura, for several years on which they interviewed nearly 200 CEOs about how each of their companies celebrated social impact culture.

Two West hadn’t been doing much philanthropic work until it worked with McKnight.

Vern Cushenbery, Two West’s chief investment officer, says it was natural for the company to be McKnight’s guinea pig.

“Laura provided a framework for values that were already embedded inside our team to grow and flourish. That’s strengthened our culture over time.”

According to McKnight, Two West was able to streamline its approach to community involvement by launching an initiative for its 13 employees called the BIG Corporate Club, with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

BIG Corporate Club encourages employee-level and corporate-level involvement in raising money for, and creating friendships with, the children who are part of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

“What we were able to identify were four key values that we try to engender across all of our team, which is to invest, educate, simplify and give. That’s an approach we take with all of our clients and all of our stakeholders, and everybody we do business with,” Cushenbery explains.

Once a year One Celebrations re-surveys employees to keep a company’s information fresh, not only so that philanthropic styles stay current, but so that the company can accurately tout what it does on its website.

“There’s been a big shift in how all organizations are taking a good, hard look at the changing demographic and mindset of their employee base,” Harrington says. “This kind of confluence of philanthropy and community engagement in organizations and companies has risen, and they’re becoming more formalized, more structured.”

More structure means streamlining a process, which equates to saving both time and money, in staff costs, culture-building activities and charitable contributions gone awry, like buying a 10-seat table at an event no one attends.

Harrington estimates that for an average midsize company, the savings are between $22,500 and $35,000 annually.

And both employees and employers are happier, which is worth a lot more than that.

Contact Anne at or Twitter @annekniggendorf.

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