CEOs selective about community involvement
Demands pour in from charities, industry and social groups

As head of a major pharmaceutical company Jean-François Leprince has a lot on his plate. But like most corporate executives, he also lends a hand to numerous charitable, industrial and social groups.

"There is immense personal satisfaction from contributing to the community," said Leprince, president of Aventis Pharma. "People in good health do not realize how lucky they are. We have to do more to help others."

Over the years Leprince has supported causes ranging from the Advanced Coronary Treatment Foundation, Centraide and the Look Good Feel Better program for cancer patients.

This year, Leprince, along with Bombardier chairman Laurent Beaudoin, and RBC Financial Group CEO Gordon Nixon will co-chair the Daffodil Ball, a black tie affair that gathers some of the city's biggest wallets and their spouses to raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society. Last year alone ball organizers raised $1.5 million to fund the society's activities.

But choosing which causes to support isn't easy said Leprince. "We get a lot of requests."

Aventis has come up with a well-defined process to select the causes that the company will endorse. These are grouped into four categories.

"The organizations that we look at first are those that deal in the fields of oncology and diabetes, where Aventis wants to become a leader," Leprince said.

Aventis also supports organizations with a focus on research and innovation, those related to education as well as projects in the Laval area, where the company's Canadian operations are based.

Leprince's primary tasks as co-chairman of the Daffodil Ball are to write letters and make follow-up phone calls to his network of close contacts and company suppliers, hitting them for contributions to the ball, or encouraging them to buy tickets.

That might not sound like much, but what goes around comes around and Leprince knows that each person he solicits will be asking him to return the favor one day.

According to one local fund-raising player the "one hand washes the other," phenomenon is a big element of Montreal's fund raising scene.

"There are only about 100 big company CEOs in the Montreal region, but there exists a collective sentiment that we have to get more involved," said André Marcheterre, president of Merck Frosst (Canada) the man who recruited Leprince to pitch in for this year's Daffodil Ball. "Eventually we all end up helping each other."

Marcheterre warns that these commitments eat up more time than one might think. "When you include meetings, letter-writing, follow up phone calls, it took about three days (of my time last year)," Marcheterre said. "And that's just one event."

Leprince also takes a close interest in the operations of organizations that he sponsors, making sure that the money is disbursed effectively. But it's a challenge he holds dear.

"Cancer is a terrible disease," said Leprince. "You have to fight it one patient at a time and the best you can hope for is to treat them. The disease can always come back."

One of the Daffodil Ball's key beneficiaries is Quebec's cancer patients who live in rural areas. Ball funds are used to subsidize accommodations at the Canadian Cancer Society's 29 room Lodge, where patients can stay at reduced rates when they come to Montreal for treatment.

According to one Lodge client, the funds are well spent. "It's a very nice place to stay," said Marjorie Stokes-Archibald, who was in town for to undergo two weeks of chemotherapy treatment at the Montreal General Hospital for breast cancer. "The fact that you are staying with other cancer patients makes it easier because you are all going through the same thing."

Despite the fact that Aventis manufactures Taxotere, a drug used in the treatment of breast cancer, Leprince admits there is a lot of work to do in the field.

"There is no sliver magic bullet to treat (the disease)," Leprince said. For now the only performance indicator is survival."

Which means that Leprince and his CEO pals are probably going to be signing those fund raising letters for many years to come.

 

 

 

Photo caption: Jean-François Leprince, president of Aventis, who helps raise money for the Canadian Cancer Society, looks at wigs with Marjorie Stokes-Archibald, who is staying at the one association's guest accommodations, while she undergoes radiation therapy for breast cancer.

 

Sidebar: Community involvement can yield big returns

Although CEOs typically get involved in social causes out of a genuine desire to give back, they and the companies they represent can reap substantial benefits from community involvement said one public relations pro.

"Networking is a big part of it," said Alison Silcoff, president of Alison Silcoff events, the organizer of the Daffodil Ball. "The ball features the who's who of Canadian business. And you can meet them all."

Just to get into the ball requires a minimum $2,000 per couple contribution and most participants buy an entire table worth of tickets.

The upshot is that attendance is limited to 325 attendants, (mostly men) and their better halves. But those who attend know that they are going to meet key decision-makers.

That means in addition to the big company CEO whales, the guest list is filled with a lot of sharks including lawyers, investment bankers and public accountants who are always looking to land that big fish client.

Little actual business gets done at the ball. But "it's a lot easier to call someone up a week or two later if you've already had a whiskey with them," said Silcoff, who has emerged as one of the city's top CEO wranglers in the past few years.

 

 

Although few Canadian firms were hit by corporate accounting and executive pay scandals, being associated with popular causes can play a big role in boosting a company's image Silcoff said.

"There's a feeling that (having a good name) can help offset some of the negative sentiment out there," Silcoff said.

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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