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Build Your Own Internal “United Way”

Build Your Own Internal “United Way”

Ann Rhoades
May 9, 2023

Life is full of surprises, not all of them good ones. If you run a company, you likely have had employees at every level encounter life crises that have temporarily affected their ability to survive, not to mention do their jobs. As a co-founder of a People First company, we wanted our team to find a way to help them, so we did.

When we started JetBlue, for my co-founders and me, a primary objective was to create a company with a culture of caring for its people and customers alike. Every aspect of the company is tied to this value, but one program in particular has contributed powerfully, in both concrete and philosophical ways, to communicating this mission, and that is the JetBlue Crewmember Crisis Fund (JCCF).

The mission of the JCCF is to assist crew members and their immediate families by providing short term support in times of crisis when other resources are not available. We started it 20 years ago, in the very early days of JetBlue when we were still a small company with 100 employees; we wanted it to be in our DNA right from the start. JetBlue made an initial contribution of $10,000 to get it started, and it has grown with us. Today it contains millions of dollars.

The JCCF grows through contributions from the JetBlue team. There are three primary avenues through which these donations come in. The first is direct, regular deductions from payroll. Employees are introduced to the program as early as the recruiting phase, and when they onboard, we hand them the forms to enroll. At the moment, about 53% of the employees, who now number over 26,000, participate in payroll donations to the JCCF. This is the most significant avenue for contributions to the fund.

Another common source of donations is a portion of bonuses. Management in particular has been very generous with this type of donation, which has helped the fund grow significantly. Finally, we have some employees who just cannot afford to give part of their pay, so they participate in fundraising, donating their time to organize events which benefit the fund. Fundraising events are typically organized by groups of employees, although JetBlue has grown large enough to have a fundraising committee now which helps with larger events. But many are still quite small scale.

For example, last year a group of teammates organized an ice cream social. They got a company to donate the ice cream, sold it for two or three times what it cost, and were able to raise over $1000. Another group organized a rooftop social. It was a happy hour, they had raffle prizes, and people paid a certain amount to attend. In addition to raising money for the JCCF, the event provided an opportunity for the team to get together socially and have fun. It’s been too long since we have all been able to get together, so everyone was thrilled by the opportunity. It was a wonderful event and raised over $5000.

You may think, JetBlue is a very large company, and mine is very small–how could I make this effective? Through our work starting and advising companies of all sizes, we can tell you that small companies can absolutely do this too. The strategies may look a little different, but they can be just as effective.

In small companies, alternate strategies are effective, especially in the early days. One powerful possibility is for employees to donate unused vacation days, which then get moved directly into the fund from the accruals. Fundraising can be effective in smaller companies as well. If you are willing to be creative, you can grow a significant fund, even if your team is small. At JetBlue, we ran a year-round raffle, with prizes that included things like spending a day with Don, our CEO, or tickets to sporting events. Small companies can absolutely do this too!

Regardless of your size, there are several important things you must get right as you set this up. Right from the start, your objective and your process must be transparent and extremely clear. First, you get the legal document to set up a 501C, and then you write the rules, clarifying very precisely what specific types of crises are eligible for grants. It’s a charity, so you need to send out an annual report to everyone who participates, so they can see how their contributions are being used.

As you build out the application process, you need to ensure that someone or a small group has administrative oversight of the program, but it’s not complicated – it’s not an add to staff. At JetBlue, an Office Manager has overseen the fund since its inception. Since it has grown so large, she does now spend almost half her time on it, but when it was small, it was much less. Then you establish a board. Today, JetBlue’s JCCF board is 14 members, though we started with just five. They are all A players, they are all respected people whose managers have recommended them, and they come from every area of the company. They meet once a month to review applications, and sometimes convene emergency meetings when there is an urgent need.

For the JCCF, common situations that create a crisis-level need include divorces and crew members who suddenly find themselves single parents responsible for the entirety of their rent or house payment. Natural disasters are also a common cause for crisis-level need. Health issues can also quickly become a crisis in a family.

All requests are reviewed by the JCCF board. The board’s job is to ensure that our process is uniform and fair and that we look at each application through the same lens.

Last year, for example, JetBlue had many crew members who were affected by hurricanes. They lost their homes, or their homes were heavily damaged. It was a year of high need; we received a total of 580 applications for funding, and we were able to grant 373, or 64% of them. That year we gave out $1.3M in grants, but we had actually collected $1.67M. In addition to the regular contributions that many of our team members make, when the crisis hit, many management members stepped up and gave significant amounts, and some board members chose to donate part of their cash comp to the fund. It seems that the generosity of our team always manages to keep up with and even outpace the need – that’s how much everyone cares for our team at JetBlue.

If you do this right and define the criteria carefully, you’ll see that once you have established your program, you are able to fund between 60%-70% of applications. People learn quickly what is appropriate to ask for and what is not.

Since its founding in 2002 the JetBlue Crewmember Crisis Fund has awarded close to $11M in grants. It is clearly important for practical reasons, but it is also an important way JetBlue communicates to the team what kind of a company they are. It’s a core value to take care of their people, and as we built this, we wanted to be sure we communicated and lived that value in everything we did. When you join the team, JetBlue will take care of you.

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