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For the past 165 years, Baird & Warner has been pouring into the Chicagoland community, with the family-owned brokerage sharing its real estate records with city leaders in 1871 after The Great Fire to hasten reconstruction. A century later, Baird & Warner invested in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community urban renewal project to bolster minority homeownership and provide safe public housing — a result of the brokerage’s support of fair housing and anti-discrimination laws.
Fast forward to today, the brokerage’s leadership and 2,400 broker associates have doubled-down on their legacy of giving as the coronavirus pandemic upended the lives of millions of Americans. Out of all the cities in Illinois, Chicago has been hit hardest with 281,000 confirmed cases of COVID in the city and the surrounding Chicagoland area.
“Throughout history, we’ve always had these really great moments of sort of inherently understanding that our success was really dependent on Chicago being successful,” artist and Baird & Warner archivist Lucy Wood Baird told Inman. “It’s always been in our DNA, this sort of understanding that we, as a family business who have always been in Chicago, that giving back to Chicago, it’s just the right thing to do and it’s who we are.”
With that in mind, Baird & Warner donated $289,000 to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. More than half of the donation ($150,000) came from the family’s Stephen W. and Susan M. Baird Foundation, while the other portion came from broker associates’ donating portions of their commissions to the company’s charitable arm, the Good Will Works Fund.
“We’ve always believed our fundamental job was to help people,” Baird & Warner CEO Stephen Baird said in a written statement after the family’s $150,000 gift in April. “This has taken many different forms over the years – from working with someone to buy their first home to sharing tips about the best schools in their neighborhood – but the goal has been the same, to make our clients’ lives easier.”
“And now, more than ever, our clients and community need us,” he added.
The funds have helped more than 175 community nonprofits continue their work throughout the pandemic, including food banks, emergency financial assistance groups, health and AIDS advocacy networks, children’s mentorship and education programs, housing services for homeless, elderly or disabled citizens, and social justice groups that help incarcerated and recently released Chicagoans chart a path forward.
“We have done this several times over the years where there’s a unique situation like COVID,” Baird said. We did it also around [Hurricane] Katrina, where there’s a particular extreme need and so this year, obviously, that was COVID.”
“That became a focus of what we were doing, and what it essentially meant in this year was that we were ramping up our contribution level,” he added. “We felt that it was important for us to support a community-based effort.”
In the midst of helping their fellow Chicagoans survive the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout, Baird & Warner’s broker associates have been earmarking their donations for other causes in their immediate communities. Although the family has focused on fair housing, racial equity and financial empowerment, the individual offices get to choose which causes they want to invest in.
“Each of our offices gets a grant every year that they can give out in their community,” Wood Baird said in reference to how the Good Will Works Fund makes sure all 24 offices are giving. “Previously, those were focused on shelter, but we kind of took off the limitations.”
“They’re the ones who are really involved in their local team, and so they’re the ones who know kind of where [those funds] would best be used,” she added.
She said the brokerage recently retooled the Good Will Works Fund to include matching options. Broker associates can already vote for which organizations they’d like the Good Will Works Fund to donate to, but now they can also request monetary and volunteer hours matching.
“We’ve already seen people come in with requests for both monetary matching and volunteer matching,” Wood Baird said. “We did a company-wide survey and a number of focus groups [while retooling Good Will Works], and we really found out our agents and our employees are very involved.”
“They spend a lot of time raising money, and they’re very active in their communities,” she added. “The other thing we found was that they love volunteering and it’s their favorite way of being engaged — that was sort of the last piece of the puzzle we needed.”
Baird said he’s proud of how his team and broker associates have stepped up to the plate for their communities this year, as it reflects the company’s culture of giving back.
“We’ve always been very strong about [the fact that] it’s not just about giving money, it’s about getting into these organizations and volunteering,” he explained.”Obviously, they want money, but it’s more than just writing a check — it’s also about our commitment to supporting communities.”
“That’s been an ethic that’s been in the company for a long, long time and something that’s one of our core values,” he added. “Our agents are independent contractors, so their ability to make contributions is not mandatory, but they actually opt into the system. Ninety percent of them opt-in [to Good Will Works].”
Baird said broker-owners and brokerage leaders must lead by example and be consistent in their giving and support of their community. Once agents see how dedicated you are to giving back, they said, they’ll follow suit.
“If you don’t have that [giving] culture, then you’re always going to have problems because people aren’t going to want to contribute, or they’re going to limit it, say ‘I can’t do it this year’ or whatever,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that when we did this, we were consistent about it.”
“We’re both consistent about how we raise money, and consistent on how we also support these nonprofits,” he added. “Yes, this year is a big year, and COVID is a big thing. But when COVID goes away, there’s still going to be needs in the community.”
If money is truly an issue, Wood Baird said agents can “donate” their invaluable skills to community organizations that need help.
“I’ve seen a lot of our agents and office managers [give] their skills as real estate professionals, which are really valuable,” she said. “There’s a lot of nonprofits, including ones we work with, that are doing financial empowerment coaching or homebuyer education, and we have agents who are volunteering to work with them.”
“I think that’s also something to remember too, that you can volunteer your skills as a real estate professional,” she added. “Every bit helps.”