Money from within

Money from within

Starting an internal scholarship program can promote company culture and doesn’t need to be complicated.

March 27, 2019

As James Martin Associates – with locations in Chicago and Boulder – celebrated 40 years of business in 2017, owner James Martin wondered if there was a way to thank his employees.

The company had been awarding scholarships to those entering the horticulture field since 1998, when Martin contributed $10,000 worth of scholarships to the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association. They also awarded money to NALP and back to schools where some of their successful recruits attended.

But two years ago, the company opted to start a scholarship for employees’ children, helping them offset the cost of college tuition. Applicants who demonstrated a strong commitment to school, extracirricular activities, leadership and financial need were awarded money from the company. Martin says starting this scholarship has already become a staple at his business, and it’s helped improve his company culture.

“All of the sudden, you’re seeing all the outstanding young people that you had no idea are part of what I’ll call the extended company family,” Martin says. “It’s probably been some of the most rewarding scholarships that we’ve ever given because it’s really personal, it’s really intimate.”

Martin says there are plenty of ways to handle setting up an employee scholarship, but here’s what they did:

Establish criteria. People need to know who’s eligible, what factors will be considered in decision-making and how much money is at stake. Martin says he told employees up front how much the scholarships will be worth and how many candidates will be selected. Communicate the criteria in English and Spanish if need be, or clarify the requirements in any other language that might be necessary for your employees.

James Martin Associates also aimed to add some level of prestige to the scholarship by offering a big presentation check, taking a picture, and sending a press release out with the photo to local media companies and the student’s high school.

Martin says companies should strive to find ways to make the scholarship become an integral part of the company culture. They award the money to the student during the company’s year-end celebration.

“We try to make it somewhat significant in having the employee invite the family member to that end-of-season event, so that there’s a little bit of that promotion of it, or recognition and acknowledgment of it,” Martin says. “Being able to sing the praises of a co-worker’s child in front of the rest of the company, I think that was powerful.”

Look for examples. Martin jokes that there’s another interpretation to the phrase “R&D,” which traditionally stands for “research and development.” In this case, it stands for “rob and duplicate.”

Martin recommends finding applications from other scholarship applications to inspire ideas for your own apps. Will students submit essays for your scholarship, and what do you want them to write about? What types of questions will you ask students on their applications? Using other examples might help you narrow down what you want to know about a candidate before you reach a decision.

But it’s also important to adapt others’ examples to fit your own business. Next year, Martin’s company is adopting and changing a scoresheet the ILCA uses in its annual scholarship process to help keep decisions fair. And while they also used application materials from the ILCA and other horticulture organizations, Martin says they made some changes to allow a wider range of students to apply. His company placed a stronger emphasis on having a job outside of school, whereas others might have desired a higher GPA and the work beyond classes could be less pertinent.

“We wanted to acknowledge and weight, to some extent, students who had jobs before they went off to college,” Martin says. “We just felt like that should be another piece of the equation and can definitely be a decider between one candidate and the next.”

Take precautionary steps. Though Martin says his company doesn’t go through any regulatory board to comply with state law, he does say that anybody establishing a scholarship – whether it’s internal or external – should make sure they research how it would affect their taxes.

Martin also says setting up a committee – even if it’s just two or three extra employees – to help make the final decision could eliminate the possibility of bias. He says getting letters of recommendation to help factor into the decision-making process helps keep it objective as well.

Though he says he’s never had any employees complain about their kid not getting a scholarship, Martin recommends taking employees through the process and show how exceptional the other candidates were, rather than communicate why their son or daughter didn’t win.

Overall, Martin says there’s been no negative affect to the internal scholarship. He says he wishes it would’ve been the first scholarship they did all those years ago, and he urges others to stop delaying. If your company has $1,000 to give, do it.

“That is a neat, fun, very fulfilling way to say thank you and appreciate and create reasons for people to be a part of our company,” Martin says. “Today, we’ve got 150 families that depend upon us. To now be able to give support back to them for the advancement or education of their kids… it’s very rewarding.”