Taking Aim

Louisville Water Company volunteers help the community while building strategic business partnerships

Volunteer programs help water and sewer utility employees give back to their communities and generate public good will.

The Louisville (Ky.) Water Company takes that concept even further, using volunteers to help establish relationships with organizations that can help achieve strategic goals. The program may even help the company find future employees.

Established in 2009, the utility’s Stewardship Program is the brainchild of CEO Greg Heitzman.

“Greg is a strong believer in community involvement, right down to managers and employees,” says Carl Blanton, manager of organizational effectiveness. “He wanted a formal program to get employees more involved in the community.”

Judging from the numbers, the program is thriving. In 2010, about 15 percent of the utility’s staff members donated 5,468 volunteer hours to various agencies and organizations. That’s a 13 percent increase in hours over 2009. The volunteer work ranges from serving on or chairing boards to grassroots, hands-on activities.


Strategic approach

While many organizations offer employees more-or-less random volunteer opportunities, LWC has a cohesive, strategic volunteer program, organized in three tiers, each with a specific purpose. Overall, the work covers about 150 local agencies and organizations, and employees can nominate groups for each tier.

“We didn’t want employees to do something just to be doing it,” says Kelley Dearing-Smith, manager of strategic communications. “The activities must have value — a benefit — for both parties.”

Tier one takes in nonprofit organizations whose work aligns directly with LWC’s mission, strategic vision or regional business strategy. LWC identified 47 such organizations, and in 2010, employees served 45 of them.

Groups in tier one include Greater Louisville Inc., the Center for Infrastructure Research at the University of Louisville, the Jefferson County Fire Service, the Louisville Fire Department, the American Water Works Association, and EDGE Outreach, an international nonprofit that helps provide safe drinking water in developing countries.

Tier two groups include nonprofit social groups, businesses and educational institutions that have a secondary connection with LWC. There are 51 such groups, and in 2010, employees helped 45, including the Louisville Chapter of the American Red Cross, the University of Louisville — J.B. Speed School of Engineering, and the Leadership Louisville Center.

“The American Red Cross is a good example because we can provide it with bottled drinking water during emergencies within the city, and can help the organization distribute them,” Blanton says.


Hands-on volunteerism

Tier three groups provide more traditional volunteer opportunities. There are 53 such community-based organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Kentuckiana, the greater Kentucky Chapter of the March of Dimes, the Louisville Area Command of the Salvation Army and the Kentuckiana Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

“These groups have no connection to us except that they’re here in the community we serve,” Blanton says. “They make our community a better place to live, so we want to support them, too. We want people to know we’re interested in more than just getting water safely from Point A to Point B.

“This tier is where a lot of our employees are interested in helping. Many who volunteer for these groups belong to the organizations or have benefited from them.”

LWC employees volunteered at 23 of those organizations in 2010, giving 1,158 hours of volunteer work in 2010.


Wide range of benefits

Some volunteer opportunities yield less tangible, long-term benefits. For example, a local Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) mentoring program helps attract young people to the engineering profession “that could help us with our future operations,” Blanton says.

The same concept applies to a heavy-equipment science program at a local high school, where the utility may spot promising young tradespeople.

“We look at students in their senior year who are interested in heavy equipment and construction trades and try to hire them for summer employment,” Blanton says. “That way, they can gain experience from our trained employees. It gives them something to put on their resumes.”

In another case, involvement with the Jefferson County Fire Service and Jefferson County Fire Chiefs Association helped the utility forge a fire-hydrant maintenance agreement. “We used to do all of the maintenance on fire hydrants — exercising valves, painting hydrants and flushing them,” Blanton says. “But we couldn’t do as many as we wanted, so we worked out an agreement to pay them to do the maintenance.

“By combining forces, we’re able to accomplish a lot more, and having established relationships through volunteer work helped us to more easily set up the program. You already know the right people and can get your foot in the door with proposing an idea.”

Adds Dearing-Smith: “Established relationships help get things off the ground. It’s not like you’re sitting at a table with strangers because you already know them. And you really save time because you already know if they’ll be a good partner.”


Aiming for synergy

One of the best examples of a synergistic match for the utility’s volunteer efforts is Smile Kentucky. Based on a partnership between the utility, the Louisville Dental Society and the University of Louisville School of Dentistry, the program provides free annual dental screenings and treatment for children in grades 3-6 in metropolitan Louisville and surrounding counties.

“Public health is at the core of what a water utility does, so we hang our hat on things that provide overall better health for the community,” says Dearing-Smith. “In this program, we coordinate educational efforts. We’re in the schools, grades K-8, teaching dental health and touting water as a healthy choice. We reach about 14,000 students a year.”

The volunteer program also offers public relations benefits. For instance, it provides good touch points to talk with customers about things such as fire protection and water quality — opportunities LWC otherwise might not enjoy. It also helps people understand the value of water and LWC’s role in delivering a quality product. That, in turn, can make it easier when the utility needs funding for new infrastructure.

“It’s good PR, but that’s not the whole reason for doing it,” says Dearing-Smith. “It’s just one of those things that in your gut you know is the right thing to do.”


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