L to R: Monica and William Johnston andother volunteers helped clen up Alberta's highways; Jill Nakano; Don Vanderyajt

Imagine corporate managers rewarding their salespeople for taking their time and energy away from their businesses. That’s just what Jill Nakano and Don Vanderyajt do for their network marketing company—and for their community.

Jill and Don volunteer for the Polar Bear Program, their company’s philanthropic outreach. Monthly, they meet with one volunteer supervisor or manager from each department to review proposals from their field consultants for environmental, wildlife and humanitarian acts of kindness. I recently had an opportunity to speak with Jill, chief administrator of the company’s training university and chairperson of the Polar Bear Program, and Don, a committee member who on all other days is his company’s Systems Manager for Logistics and Distribution.

What was the impetus behind your company’s philanthropic program?

JN: When our company’s founder, Mr. Isamu Masuda, saw polar bears in the wild with coats that weren’t as white as they should be, he attributed it to pollution in our environment. Here’s how we tell this story in our literature:

“Mr. Masuda was inspired by an event that saddened him and profoundly touched his heart. He saw a picture of polar bears in their natural environment, but instead of the glistening, white coats he expected to see, their fur was soiled and dirty. Their condition, he realized, was a direct result of human neglect in caring for our planet.”

He envisioned a program that would encourage our consultants to make a positive and significant change in our world, so it was named the “Polar Bear Program” after Masuda’s vision of “an Earth so clean.”

DV: Our company is founded on what we call “Five Pillars”: healthy mind, healthy body, healthy finances, healthy family and healthy society. All of us, corporate staff and consultants, strive to achieve balance in our lives in each of these pillars. The Polar Bear Program gives us a focus for healthy society.

What does it take for a project to be accepted into this program?

DV: First, the committee looks for projects that are not related to selling our products or business opportunity. It must be purely philanthropic, volunteering time and energy to make a positive change in the world. We look for our consultants to be actively involved in a project they develop themselves, rather than tagging onto existing programs.

JN: Basically, we’re looking for worthy projects where our consultants are willing to give their blood, sweat and tears. If it’s a beautification project, they actually put the shovel into the earth and pull the weeds. The more people they intend to involve from the community, the better. The more original, the better.

DV: We like it when the consultants and their teams come up with their own ideas, develop and implement them hands on. We’re not looking for “pass the hat around” projects that are donation-based.

How many projects have you approved, and what does it mean to the consultant to have an approved Polar Bear project?

JN: We consider all worthy projects; the numbers change from year to year. We’ve had as many as 50 projects come to us and be approved in one year. It’s part of our incentive program. Those consultants whose projects are accepted are recognized at our annual awards ceremony—although the biggest reward is how good it feels to give to your community.

Where do the ideas for projects come from?

DV: Our consultants are natural networkers. They learn about needs in their communities in the same way they do their businesses: by connecting with people. They hear about senior citizens’ need for help and put together a project to help clean up their lawns or shop for groceries. Sometimes it’s more environmental, such as cleaning up areas alongside a creek, river or lakeside.

What’s in it for you?

JN: I’ve always been a person who wants to make a difference in the world. When I was asked to be a part of this committee nine years ago, it felt really good. I could actually help our consultants and be part of creating a healthier society.

I was also involved in one of our company’s own Polar Bear projects. We have a local aquatic animal center that rescues sea lions. Employees from all across our company were invited to help with cleanup duty.

DV: It’s encouraging to me to find people who not only take the time but also make the time in their busy lives to do these wonderful philanthropic things. Some projects have a very broad scope, where they solicit people from all walks of life to help them participate and achieve their goals. Not just other consultants, but others from the community—even the city government.

Some people say, “What’s in it for me?” The gratification comes from being able to help and bring a smile to the face of those you’ve helped.

And the future?

DV: The word is out that the Polar Bear Program is helping people and our earth, and giving our consultants a lot of satisfaction. More and more people are going to think, “I’d like to do something like that in my community.” Like networking, it’s going to grow exponentially across the globe.

Here is a sampling of reflections from several recipients of Polar Bear Awards (excerpted with permission from the company’s in-house magazine):

Susan McMorris: Firewood Delivery

Many homes in our small community were built without heaters and rely on wood-burning stoves for heat in the winter. Our Polar Bear project was to supply elderly and low-income homes with one-half to one full cord of wood. Our crew consisted of volunteers—just town folk who believe in helping others.

Our community is one of the poorest in the state of California. On the other hand, it has the biggest heart of any community I have ever known.

Herb Schoenfeld: Auction World Vision

We created an auction night to help raise money for the World Vision charity, a highly respected global child advocacy organization that supports children worldwide. With more than 300 in attendance, we had a night of fun and immense generosity. It was so successful, we are already planning another auction for next year.

Monica and William Johnston: Caring for Alberta’s Highways

We decided to adopt a section of the second-busiest highway in Alberta with 30,000 vehicles traveling along it each day. The garbage discarded along this portion of the highway is not only unsightly but is also a threat to the environment, as this stretch slopes downward into the Red Deer River. The entire Red Deer organization and its families will continue to clean the highway every spring and fall for the next three years.

Sherryl Chandley-Brown: Food Bank Restock

Food and money donations to the Food Bank of Central New York have declined in recent years. They said that they continually run short of tuna, pasta and cereal in their distribution stores, which is where people can use food stamps to purchase food at discount prices.

We went door to door in our neighborhood, collected food from business networking groups, then asked our consultants to do the same. All in all, we collected about 330 pounds of food in one week’s time.

Polar Bear participant Lisa Brunk (holding her granddaughter Gloria who has Cystic Fibrosis) with volunteers on a charity walk to raise money for research through the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
Linda Brunk: Walk for Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic Fibrosis is the number-one genetic killer of children and young adults. Nearly 30,000 Americans have the disease; on any given day, one will die. I was especially interested in this project because my granddaughter Gloria has this condition.

I set up a charity walk that would raise money for research through the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Our consultants and people from the community walked together and raised more than $2,500—money that will be used for finding a cure. The event was such a success that I plan to make it an annual event in my small town something that has never been done before.

Polar Bear Participants Rita Sue Bolton and Joanne McCallan with volunteers and City Park Planner help clean and beautify grounds of a home for seniors.

Rita Sue Bolton and Joanne McCallan: Senior Center Beautification

Our Polar Bear project involved cleaning the grounds of a home for seniors. We formed a team of volunteers that included our consultants, some seniors, members of the neighborhood, our friends and families, and even the City Parks Planner. The city’s Manager of Parks and the Facility Coordinator of the Seniors Association also agreed to support our project and provided gloves, shovels and rakes. We are happy with the friendships we have established with the Seniors Association and are looking forward to completing this project each spring and fall.

Mona and David Wright: Mission, Vision, Purpose

The goal of our project was to raise money and help support some neighbors affected by a tragic fire in our area. The benefit included a full day of music, food and fun for all. Many local merchants and local sports teams donated items for our live auction, which helped us to raise funds.

A large group of consultants organized this event; many more donated their time. The event’s theme was “Pay It Forward” and we were able to help many people injured from the unfortunate fire. Much like in the movie, reaching out and helping a few will result in a positive change for many people that we may never know.

Judith Spitzer: IMC Upkeep and Repairs

Over the last 48 years, International Music Camp (IMC) has hosted over 102,000 young artists and has grown to be one of the world’s largest and finest summer arts schools. Located in the beautiful Turtle Mountains of North Dakota, this special nonprofit camp offers hope and inspiration, but suffers greatly from each severe winter. With a motivated crew, we spent three days giving the camp some much-needed attention. With new doors, fresh paint and minor repairs, the IMC was ready for students. All of us were so thankful that we could help such a special program stay in shape.

Paul Taylor: Caps for Pops

My 82-year-old dad loved to wear baseball caps all the time. When he passed, he was living in an assisted living facility; in my dad’s memory, I began collecting hats from friends and relatives, So far, I have collected 70 caps from all over the country as far away as Maui. I deliver 10 at a time to local nursing homes in Spokane and what a pleasure it is to see the smile on the “pops’” faces as well as the employees. I believe this will strengthen my “society pillar” and bring a lot of joy to the people living in these homes.